“For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve. After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep. After that He was seen by James, then by all the apostles. Then last of all He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time.” 1 Corinthians 15:3-8
One of the strongest arguments for the credibility of the truth claims about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is the many witnesses we find in the New Testament. These are people who witnessed both the private and public life of Christ.
As we approach the memorial of Jesus’ death on a Roman cross almost 2,000 years ago, let’s look at some of the witnesses to His life on earth.
Witnesses To The Deity of Jesus Christ
Though Jesus Christ was the eternal God, He humbled Himself and became a Man so He would be the Heavenly sacrifice for the sins of the world (Philippians 2:5-8). Many people witnessed this from the beginning of His life.
Mary and Elizabeth
God chose a young Jewish girl named Mary to become the earthly mother of Jesus. The angel Gabriel told Mary that the Holy Spirit of God would come upon her, and the Power of the Highest would overshadow her, and she would conceive and give birth to “that Holy One” Who would be called “the Son of God.” God did as He said He would do and Mary supernaturally became pregnant with Jesus.
Mary went to visit an elderly relative named Elizabeth. Elizabeth, the wife of the priest Zacharias, was already pregnant with the baby boy who would grow up to become the prophet John the Baptist. As soon as Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby inside Elizabeth leaped in her womb and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. Here’s what Elizabeth said about Mary:
“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! But why is this granted to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For indeed, as soon as the voice of your greeting sounded in my ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy. Blessed is she who believed, for there will be a fulfillment of those things which were told her from the Lord.” Luke 1:42-45
Notice that Elizabeth called Mary “the mother of my Lord.” That’s another term for God. Elizabeth prophesied and said that what God had told Mary would be fulfilled.
Mary was also filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied after Elizabeth:
“My soul magnifies the Lord, And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior. For He has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant; For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed. For He who is mighty has done great things for me, And holy is His name. And His mercy is on those who fear Him From generation to generation. He has shown strength with His arm; He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He has put down the mighty from their thrones, And exalted the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, And the rich He has sent away empty. He has helped His servant Israel, In remembrance of His mercy, As He spoke to our fathers, To Abraham and to his seed forever.” Luke 1:46-55
Mary knew that what God was doing in her was something so great that all generations that followed would call her blessed because of it. The Greek word used here is makarizo and means “to pronounce happy, fully satisfied.”
Mary had a front row seat to what God was going to do for Israel and the world. She witnessed the visits of shepherds and wise men who came to visit her Child. She saw the wise men bow before Jesus and worship Him. Mary witnessed Simeon take the baby Jesus in his arms and speak as the Holy Spirit came upon him:
“Lord, now You are letting Your servant depart in peace, According to Your word; For my eyes have seen Your salvation Which You have prepared before the face of all peoples, A light to bring revelation to the Gentiles, And the glory of Your people Israel.” Luke 2:29-32
Mary watched as the elderly prophetess Anna told everyone looking for redemption in Israel about Jesus as she gave thanks to the Lord. (Luke 2:36-38) Mary was also witness to the 12-year-old Jesus astounding teachers in the Temple in Jerusalem with His knowledge and understanding of the Law of God. When Mary asked Jesus why He left them to go to the Temple, He answered: “Why did you seek Me? Did you not know that I must be about My Father’s business?” (Luke 2:49) It might seem strange for Jesus to talk about teaching in the Temple as His Father’s “business” since Joseph, Mary’s husband, was a carpenter, but it demonstrates that Jesus had come for one Holy Purpose.
Mary was a witness to her Son’s earthly ministry, including His Death, Resurrection and Ascension. She knew for certain when she saw Him alive after His Death on the Cross that her Son was everything the angel had told her He would be – God in Flesh.
Though Joseph, Mary’s husband, helped raise Jesus and acted as His human father, Joseph died before Jesus began His earthly ministry. We do know that Joseph was witness to the angel’s message about Mary and the Baby she carried in her womb. “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name JESUS, for He will save His people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:20-21) Joseph did as the angel of the Lord commanded him. He took Mary as his wife and did not have sexual union with her until after she gave birth to her Son. Joseph called His Name Jesus.
Joseph was also a witness to the visit of the shepherds and wise men. He heard what Simeon and Anna said about Jesus. An angel of the Lord appeared again to Joseph to warn him to take Mary and Jesus to Egypt to escape the wrath of King Herod. After Herod died, the angel told Joseph to return to Israel from Egypt. Joseph was afraid to return when he learned that Archelaus had become King of Judea, so God told Joseph in a dream to go instead to the region of Galilee and live in Nazareth (Matthew 2:13-23). Joseph was witness to the time when Jesus as a 12-year-old Child confounded teachers of the Law in the Temple with His Knowledge. Joseph also had the amazing privilege of teaching Jesus the carpenter trade. They worked side by side for many years. Joseph did not live long enough to share with Mary in her experience of watching Jesus teach, preach, heal, forgive, raise the dead, be Crucified and Resurrected. Joseph was not a witness to those events, but he knew Jesus would accomplish great things in His Life. He had seen the evidence.
Jesus’ Brothers and Sisters
We know that Mary and Joseph had several children of their own because of what the Gospel writers mentioned about Jesus (Matthew 12:46-47; 13:55-56). Here’s an interesting exchange between Jesus and people in His own synagogue at Nazareth. They had a hard time understanding Jesus’ Message because they were so familiar with Him as a person who grew up in their village.
“Is this not the carpenter’s son? Is not His mother called Mary? And His brothers James, Joses, Simon, and Judas? And His sisters, are they not all with us? Where then did this Man get all these things?” So they were offended at Him. But Jesus said to them, ‘A prophet is not without honor except in his own country and in his own house.” Matthew 13:55-57
We learn that Jesus had at least four half-brothers and two or more half-sisters. The brothers were named James, Joses, Simon, and Judas. Here’s what we know about them and their relationship to Jesus as their Lord and Savior.
James was the Lord’s younger half-brother. He knew Jesus well, but didn’t understand His Deity until after the Lord’s Resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:7). James became a powerful leader of believers in Jerusalem, especially after the death of James the brother of John (Acts 12:2, 17). James was a direct and powerful connection to Jesus Christ because he was a member of the Lord’s earthly family and because of the power of God’s Hand on his ministry.
James may be best known for the Letter he wrote to believers – we know it as the Book of James. It is obvious from his writing that James believed Jesus is God. James called Jesus the “Lord Jesus Christ” (James 1:1) and “our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory” (James 2:1).
Judas, also called Jude, was another of the Lord’s earthly half-brothers. He wrote a short letter to believers that is included in the New Testament as the Book of Jude. In it, Jude writes that he is a “bondservant of Jesus Christ.” He wrote that believers are “sanctified by God the Father, and preserved in Jesus Christ.” Jude wrote about the Father and Son in similar phrasing – “Lord God and our Lord Jesus Christ.” He spoke of the “Lord” saving His people out of the land of Egypt. He told them to “remember the words which were spoken before by the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Jude placed Jesus alongside of the other Members of the Trinity.
“But you, beloved, building yourselves up on your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Spirit, keep yourselves in the love of God, looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life.” Jude 20-21
As powerful as that statement is, it is just a prelude to one of the strongest verses in the New Testament attesting to the Deity of Jesus Christ, the Savior of His people.
“Now to Him who is able to keep you from stumbling, And to present you faultless Before the presence of His glory with exceeding joy, To God our Savior, Who alone is wise, Be glory and majesty, Dominion and power, Both now and forever. Amen.” Jude 24-25
Joses and Simon
Joses and Simon are not mentioned in the New Testament as followers of Jesus, but some early Christian writings identify Simon as bishop of Jerusalem following the death of his brother James in about A.D. 62. Joses is also mentioned by early Christian writers as being a believer and leader in Jerusalem.
The Resurrection of Jesus Christ had a profound effect on the Lord’s earthly family. They realized He is God and served Him as Lord for the rest of their lives.
We move next to people closest to Jesus during His earthly Ministry.
John the Baptist
John the Baptist was the man God used to prepare the way for “the Lord.” John preached a baptism for the remission of sins and the coming wrath of God. He also preached – “There comes One after me who is mightier than I, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to stoop down and loose. I indeed baptized you with water, but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (Mark 1:7-8) John was preparing the way for the Messiah of Israel – Who would baptize people with the Holy Spirit and fire – Who would thoroughly clean out His threshing floor, gather His wheat into the barn, and burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire. The Old Testament Scriptures attributed this same Power to God alone.
Jesus came to John for baptism – not for remission of sins, but to fulfill righteousness and for special anointing as God’s Priest, Prophet, and King of Israel. John immediately knew who Jesus was and said – “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is He of whom I said, ‘After me comes a Man who is preferred before me, for He was before me.’” (John 1:29-30) There was no doubt that John knew that Jesus was the One about Whom he preached. He also knew that Jesus existed “before” him even though John was several months older by his earthly birthday.
The exchange between Jesus and John is very telling of what John knew about Him:
“Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him. And John tried to prevent Him, saying, “I need to be baptized by You, and are You coming to me?” But Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then he allowed Him. When He had been baptized, Jesus came up immediately from the water; and behold, the heavens were opened to Him, and He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting upon Him. And suddenly a voice came from heaven, saying, ‘This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:13-17)
John the Baptist was arrested sometime after baptizing Jesus. He heard about the works of Christ and sent two of his disciples to ask Christ an important question:
“Are You the Coming One, or do we look for another?’ Jesus answered and said to them, ‘Go and tell John the things which you hear and see: The blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he who is not offended because of Me.”
John’s question is surprising on the surface because God had shown him that Jesus was His Anointed One, but we need to understand what Jews believed about the Messiah. The Old Testament prophets presented Messiah as a Conquering King. They also presented Messiah as the Suffering Savior, but so many Jews missed the significance of what God was going to do for them by suffering for them. Even though it was in their Scriptures, they didn’t comprehend the significance of Messiah dying for their sins and being raised from the dead for their justification. What Jesus did in answering John’s questions was to point him to the “evidences” of the Messiah – the blind seeing, the lame walking, lepers being cleansed, the deaf hearing, the dead rising to life, and the poor having the Gospel preached to them. Those were prophetic evidences John the Baptist would recognize. He went to his death knowing that Jesus is the Promised Messiah of Israel.
Jesus selected 12 men who would become His closest disciples – men we know as the Twelve Apostles of Christ. They spent 3+ years traveling the country with Jesus. They witnessed His Miracles and Teachings. They saw Jesus heal the suffering multitudes and cast thousands of demons out of oppressed people. 11 of the Apostles were witnesses to His Death, Resurrection and Ascension. They were filled with the Holy Spirit and experienced His Great Power in their own lives and ministries as they preached the Gospel of the Kingdom of God. Did these men who knew Jesus best believe He is God? Let’s see what the Gospels shows us about the beliefs of the Apostles about the Deity of Jesus Christ.
“Immediately Jesus made His disciples get into the boat and go before Him to the other side, while He sent the multitudes away … Then those who were in the boat came and worshiped Him, saying, ‘Truly You are the Son of God.” Matthew 14:22, 33
These Jewish men would have only worshiped God. They really believed that Jesus is God.
“He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter answered and said, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.” Matthew 16:15-17
The Apostle Peter understood from what he had witnessed that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men.” John 1:1-4
The Apostle John made it clear in his account of the Gospel that Jesus is the Word of God and that the Word of God is God. John believed that Jesus was in the beginning with God and that every created thing was Created by Jesus.
“Nathanael answered and said to Him, “Rabbi, You are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!”
The Apostle Nathanael (also called Bartholomew) recognized Jesus as the Son of God, the King of Israel. This was on their first meeting when Jesus told Nathanael He had seen him standing under a fig tree before Philip called him to meet Jesus. Nathanael knew that Jesus had not been near him and immediately saw that Jesus is the Son of God.
“And Thomas answered and said to Him, “’My Lord and my God!”
When Thomas saw Jesus after His Death and Resurrection, he recognized that Jesus is God and testified to his belief.
It is clear from reading the Gospel accounts that while Jesus was with them on earth the Apostles believed Jesus is God, but what did they believe after He Ascended into Heaven? What about the early years of their ministries? Did their experiences change their minds about the Deity of Christ? What do we learn from the letters they wrote to other believers decades after Christ’s Resurrection and Ascension? Did they still believe He is God?
The Apostles in the Book of Acts
Jesus ascended into Heaven in full view of His followers. As they were watching Jesus, two angels appeared to them and said – “Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:11) The apostles witnessed the Son of God do something that is humanly impossible and heard angels say that He would come again in the same way. They left the mount called Olivet and returned to Jerusalem to the “upper room.” All of the Apostles were there, except for Judas who had hanged himself. Mary, the mother of Jesus, along with the Lord’s earthly brothers and other disciples continued with one accord with the Apostles in prayer and supplication.
Peter stood before them and said it was time to choose someone to take Judas’ place. The Lord had chosen 12 Apostles to take the message of the Kingdom of God to Israel, so Peter gave them the requirements for making their selection – “Therefore, of these men who have accompanied us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John to that day when He was taken up from us, one of these must become a witness with us of His resurrection.” The group proposed two men – Joseph called Barsabas (surnamed Justus) and Matthias – then prayed for God’s leading in choosing the 12th Apostle – “You, O Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which of these two You have chosen to take part in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas by transgression fell, that he might go to his own place.” After they prayed, they cast their lots and the lot fell on Matthias, so he was numbered with the 11 Apostles. (Acts 1:21-26)
The stage is now set – Jesus ascended to Heaven to take His Place with God the Father – the Lord’s followers chose a replacement for Judas – the only thing left was to wait for what Jesus promised them – “… you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8) They didn’t wait long –
“When the Day of Pentecost had fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven, as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled the whole house where they were sitting. Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.” Acts 2:1-4
The Apostles had already received the Spirit of God on the day Jesus Rose from the grave when the Lord breathed on them and gave them His Spirit (John 20:22). On the Day of Pentecost, Jesus sent His Spirit to them as a group of believers in great Power and they began to preach. What they preached that day tells us a lot about what they believed concerning the Deity of Jesus Christ.
“Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a Man attested by God to you by miracles, wonders, and signs which God did through Him in your midst, as you yourselves also know— Him, being delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death; whom God raised up, having loosed the pains of death, because it was not possible that He should be held by it. For David says concerning Him: ‘I foresaw the LORD always before my face, For He is at my right hand, that I may not be shaken. Therefore my heart rejoiced, and my tongue was glad; Moreover my flesh also will rest in hope. For You will not leave my soul in Hades, Nor will You allow Your Holy One to see corruption. You have made known to me the ways of life; You will make me full of joy in Your presence.’ Men and brethren, let me speak freely to you of the patriarch David, that he is both dead and buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Therefore, being a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that of the fruit of his body, according to the flesh, He would raise up the Christ to sit on his throne, he, foreseeing this, spoke concerning the resurrection of the Christ, that His soul was not left in Hades, nor did His flesh see corruption. This Jesus God has raised up, of which we are all witnesses. Therefore being exalted to the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, He poured out this which you now see and hear. For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he says himself: ‘The LORD said to my Lord, ‘Sit at My right hand, Till I make Your enemies Your footstool.’ Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.’ Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Men and brethren, what shall we do?’ Then Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call.” (Acts 2:22-39)
Peter presented Jesus as being “exalted to the right hand of God.” No human could ever attain to that level because to be at God’s Right Hand was to be God Himself. Peter also presented Jesus as the “Lord” and “Holy One” of King David’s prophecy. Peter told the crowds of Jews in Jerusalem that day that God had made Jesus, whom they had crucified, both Lord and Christ. This message from the Apostle Peter about the Deity and Supremacy of Christ was so powerful that thousands were cut to the heart, repented and were baptized in the Name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins – and they all received the Gift of the Holy Spirit.
The Apostle Peter called Jesus Christ “the Holy One and the Just” and told Jews in Jerusalem that they had “killed the Prince of life.” Peter claimed that “faith in His name” was what healed people (Acts 3:14-16). Peter also reminded the Jews that Jesus was the Messiah of Israel and the Prophet Moses had promised centuries before (Acts 3:18-26). Peter was as bold in his proclamations about Jesus with the chief priests, scribes, elders, and rulers of Israel as he was with the people on the streets of Jerusalem. Peter stood up to them after he was arrested and told them they had “murdered” Jesus by hanging him on a tree, but “Him God has exalted to His right hand to be Prince and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.” (Acts 5:31) That statement greatly angered the chief priests and rulers and they plotted how to kill Peter and the other Apostles.
Other Jews Who Believed In Jesus
The rulers of Israel had more to be concerned about than just the Apostles. The Jews who were believing the Apostles’ teaching were also becoming a problem. Their faith and knowledge was growing stronger every day. A powerful example of that was a man named Stephen. He was described as a man “full of faith, power and the Holy Spirit” (Acts 6:5, 8). Stephen’s teaching and wisdom was so powerful that a group of men secretly induced men to lie about Stephen and say that he spoke blasphemous words against Moses and God. The group stirred up the people, elders and scribes to seize Stephen and bring him to the ruling council. False witnesses came before the council and lied about what Stephen was teaching.
The council looked at Stephen and his face was like that of an angel (Acts 6:15). The high priest asked Stephen if the things being said against him were true. That question gave Stephen the opportunity to proclaim one of the most powerful messages in the Book of Acts. He began with God calling Abram out of Mesopotamia and continued to rehearse the history of Israel through the days of Moses. Then, Stephen aimed his message directly at the priests and elders of Israel.
“You stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears! You always resist the Holy Spirit; as your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who foretold the coming of the Just One, of whom you now have become the betrayers and murderers, who have received the law by the direction of angels and have not kept it.” Acts 7:51-53
That enraged the rulers and they gnashed at him with their teeth, but Stephen, being full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into Heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. That’s when Stephen said, “Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” (Acts 7:56) When the rulers heard Stephen call Jesus the “Son of Man” and place Him standing at the right hand of God, they cried out with a loud voice, stopped their ears, and ran at him with one accord. That’s because Stephen was equating Jesus with God Himself. They dragged Stephen outside of the city and stoned him to death. Even as Stephen was dying, he asked God not to charge the sin against the men who were killing him (Acts 7:57-60).
We see evidence of what people believed about Jesus from the teaching of the Apostles. For instance, Philip had been chosen along with Stephen to help the Apostles with the daily feeding of the widows in Jerusalem. Many of the disciples were scattered after Stephen’s death, including Philip who went to the city of Samaria and preached Christ to the people there. Acts 8 tells us that Philip worked miracles before the people – casting out demons and healing the sick – and the people believed Philip’s message and there was great joy in the city (Acts 8:6-8). What was Philip’s message and what did people believe about Jesus?
“And the angel of the Lord spake unto Philip, saying, Arise, and go toward the south unto the way that goeth down from Jerusalem unto Gaza, which is desert. And he arose and went: and, behold, a man of Ethiopia, an eunuch of great authority under Candace queen of the Ethiopians, who had the charge of all her treasure, and had come to Jerusalem for to worship,Was returning, and sitting in his chariot read Esaias the prophet.Then the Spirit said unto Philip, Go near, and join thyself to this chariot.And Philip ran thither to him, and heard him read the prophet Esaias, and said, Understandest thou what thou readest? And he said, How can I, except some man should guide me? And he desired Philip that he would come up and sit with him. The place of the scripture which he read was this, He was led as a sheep to the slaughter; and like a lamb dumb before his shearer, so opened he not his mouth:In his humiliation his judgment was taken away: and who shall declare his generation? for his life is taken from the earth. And the eunuch answered Philip, and said, I pray thee, of whom speaketh the prophet this? of himself, or of some other man? Then Philip opened his mouth, and began at the same scripture, and preached unto him Jesus. And as they went on their way, they came unto a certain water: and the eunuch said, See, here is water; what doth hinder me to be baptized? And Philip said, If thou believest with all thine heart, thou mayest. And he answered and said, I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” Acts 8:26-37
Philip preached what he had been taught by the Apostles – he preached Jesus. What does that mean? According to what we see in Acts 8, it means Philip preached that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. Keep in mind that the eunuch did not have time to attend seminary and learn what to say when people asked him theological questions. He said what he believed at the earliest moment of his faith – “I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.” That was the Apostolic teaching.
As we read through the early chapters in Acts, we see the Apostles’ primary message was that Jesus Christ was Israel’s Messiah – “And daily in the temple, and in every house, they did not cease teaching and preaching Jesus as the Christ” (Acts 5:42). The number of believers in Jerusalem continued to grow and the Apostles needed help so they could continue in prayer and preaching. That led to the selection of seven godly men to help in the daily distribution of food to the Grecian widows. One of those men was named Stephen. Stephen was “a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit” (Acts 6:5). Stephen was full of faith and power and did great wonders and signs among the people. Some Jews from the Synagogue of the Freedmen tried to dispute Stephen’s claims about Jesus being the Messiah, but they were not able to resist his wisdom and the Spirit by which he spoke. Those Jews induced men to lie about Stephen, saying he spoke blasphemous words against Moses and God. They stirred up the people, the elders, and the scribes to seize Stephen and drag him before the Sanhedrin Council. They set up false witnesses who continued to say that Stephen spoke blasphemy against the Law of Moses and the Temple of God.
The Council gave Stephen the opportunity to answer the charges against him and he did so with great power. Stephen rehearsed the history of Israel and things seemed to be going along alright until he said these words:
“You stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears! You always resist the Holy Spirit; as your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who foretold the coming of the Just One, of whom you now have become the betrayers and murderers, who have received the law by the direction of angels and have not kept it.” Acts 7:51-53
Those words cut so deep into the minds and hearts of Stephen’s enemies that they gnashed at him with their teeth. Then, Stephen did something that brought everything crashing in on him. Being full of the Holy Spirit, Stephen gazed into Heaven and saw the Glory of God, and Jesus standing at the Right Hand of God, and said, “Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” The leaders of Israel instantly understood that Stephen was identifying Jesus with God and ran at him with one accord. They pushed Stephen outside the city and stoned him to death.
Before we move on, let’s look at the term Son of Man. Jesus referred to Himself as the “Son of Man” more than 80 times during His Ministry. It was a term the Jews of that time knew well because it was part of a famous prophecy in the Old Testament concerning the promised Messiah.
“I was watching in the night visions, And behold, One like the Son of Man, Coming with the clouds of heaven! He came to the Ancient of Days, And they brought Him near before Him. Then to Him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, That all peoples, nations, and languages should serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion, Which shall not pass away, And His kingdom the one Which shall not be destroyed.” Daniel 7:13-14
Jesus often called Himself the Son of Man while describing activities ascribed only to God. Here are some examples from Matthew’s Gospel.
“But that you may know that the Son of Man has power on earth to forgive sins’—then He said to the paralytic, ‘Arise, take up your bed, and go to your house.” Matthew 9:6
“For the Son of Man is Lord even of the Sabbath.” Matthew 12:8
“The Son of Man will send out His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all things that offend, and those who practice lawlessness, and will cast them into the furnace of fire. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth.” Matthew 13:41-42
“When Jesus came into the region of Caesarea Philippi, He asked His disciples, saying, ‘Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?’ So they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter answered and said, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.” Matthew 16:13-17
“So Jesus said to them, “Assuredly I say to you, that in the regeneration, when the Son of Man sits on the throne of His glory, you who have followed Me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” Matthew 19:28
“Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.” Matthew 24:30
“When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory.” Matthew 25:31
“Jesus said to him, ‘It is as you said. Nevertheless, I say to you, hereafter you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven.” Matthew 26:64
No wonder that the leaders of Israel attacked Stephen with such rage. He was accusing them of murdering Jesus and saying that Jesus was alive in Heaven and standing at the Right Hand of God Himself!
Saul of Tarsus
“And the witnesses laid down their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul … Now Saul was consenting to his death.” Acts 7:58; 8:1a
This was the beginning of a great attack on those who followed Jesus. Saul of Tarsus was a young law student who was determined to destroy the sect of the Way in Jerusalem.
“At that time a great persecution arose against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. And devout men carried Stephen to his burial, and made great lamentation over him. As for Saul, he made havoc of the church, entering every house, and dragging off men and women, committing them to prison.” Acts 8:1b-3
We learn from Acts 8 that a great persecution arose from the believers assembled at Jerusalem. It was so great that it scattered all of them throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except for the apostles who remained in Jerusalem. Saul became a leading persecutor of believers and “made havoc” with them, “entering every house, and dragging off men and women, committing them to prison.” (Acts 8:3)
This persecution did not deter the disciples of Christ from preaching about Jesus. What it did was spread God’s Message throughout the land. So, Saul went looking for followers of the Way.
“Then Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked letters from him to the synagogues of Damascus, so that if he found any who were of the Way, whether men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.” Acts 9:1-2
Jesus had other plans for Saul and revealed Himself to the chief persecutor in a unique way.
“As he journeyed he came near Damascus, and suddenly a light shone around him from heaven. Then he fell to the ground, and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?’ And he said, ‘Who are You, Lord?’ Then the Lord said, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’ So he, trembling and astonished, said, ‘Lord, what do You want me to do?’ Then the Lord said to him, ‘Arise and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.” Acts 9:3-6
Saul had a heart for God, but it was misguided. Nothing Saul had seen so far had influenced him to change his mind about Jesus – not the faith of the believers, not their testimony of believing that Jesus was the Messiah of Israel, not even their personal sacrifice. Jesus had a plan for Saul’s life and knew how to reach him. Saul immediately recognized that he was in the presence of a superior power – “Who are You, Lord?” – Saul said. Jesus revealed Himself in the clearest terms Saul would understand – “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. It is hard for you to kick against the goads.”
A quick note about “the goads.” A goad was a long rod with a pointed end (often a sharp piece of metal attached to a wooden rod) used to control oxen. The sharp end of the goad was placed on the flesh of the oxen to control and guide them. If the oxen didn’t go where they were supposed to go, the farmer would push a little harder on the goad to move the oxen in the right direction. Oxen would often kick against the goad because of the pain, but the farmer would just push harder until the oxen finally submitted to the farmer’s will. Jesus used that terminology in showing Saul that what he was doing was misguided and he needed to submit to God’s Will.
God’s Will for Saul was something the Lord determined for him before Creation. That’s an amazing thing to consider, but it was Paul (Saul) who said -“For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.” (Ephesians 1:4) Paul included himself in that “us.” God chose Paul and other believers in the sphere of Christ before He Created the world to be “holy and blameless in his sight.” The Lord’s calling to Saul on the road to Damascus had been determined long before – thousands of years before. Here’s what happened next:
“The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. For three days he was blind, and did not eat or drink anything. In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, ‘Ananias!’ ‘Yes, Lord,’ he answered. The Lord told him, ‘Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight.’ ‘Lord,’ Ananias answered, ‘I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your saints in Jerusalem. And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name.’ But the Lord said to Ananias, ‘Go! This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.’ Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, ‘Brother Saul, the Lord—Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here—has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit.’ Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul’s eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.” Acts 9:7-19
Did you see that? Jesus told Ananias that Saul was His “chosen instrument” to carry His Name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. Fascinating! Saul was a “chosen instrument.” The Greek words are skeuos ekloges – “a vessel of choice.” The word skeuos was used for vessels or implementsof various kinds – often used to carry out household duties. As we will see later, God was going to change the way He managed His household and would use Saul (Paul) as His vessel for that change. The word was also a common Greek metaphor for the human body because people in the 1st Century viewed souls as living temporarily in the body. Paul was a vessel of God’s choice. The word ekloges means “to pick out, choose for ones self.”
The Book of Acts was written by a Gentile (Luke). That’s a powerful statement in itself. Why would the Holy Spirit inspire a Gentile to write what was first a story about God’s offer of the Messiah to Israel? What happened to change that? As we read through Acts, we quickly see the reason. Israel’s leaders rejected God’s gracious offer. They killed the Messiah and refused to bow to Him even after Jesus Rose from the grave and ascended to the Throne of God. The message of the 12 Apostles was clear that Jesus was ready to return and establish His Messianic Kingdom if they would repent (Acts 3:19-23). How did Israel’s leaders respond to the call of the Apostles to repentance? The leaders killed many of the Lord’s followers in an attempt to snuff out what God was doing in Israel. So, what did Jesus do? He appeared to the chief persecutor of His followers and changed him into the leader of God’s new way of managing His household (Ephesians 3:1-11).
Jesus personally called Saul (Paul) to follow Him and carry His Name before the Gentiles, their kings, and before the people of Israel. So what did Saul tell people about Jesus?
“Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus. At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God. All those who heard him were astonished and asked, ‘Isn’t he the man who raised havoc in Jerusalem among those who call on this name? And hasn’t he come here to take them as prisoners to the chief priests?’ Yet Saul grew more and more powerful and baffled the Jews living in Damascus by proving that Jesus is the Christ.” Acts 9:19-22
How does someone go from arresting people who believed that Jesus is Christ, the Son of God, to preaching that Jesus is Christ, the Son of God? Simple. Saul personally met Jesus Christ, the Son of God. That first meeting had a profound impact on Saul’s heart and mind and on the plans he had for his life. That life-changing event was Saul’s testimony and he often told the story when he spoke with people about the change in his spiritual life.
“Indeed, I myself thought I must do many things contrary to the name of Jesus of Nazareth. This I also did in Jerusalem, and many of the saints I shut up in prison, having received authority from the chief priests; and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them. And I punished them often in every synagogue and compelled them to blaspheme; and being exceedingly enraged against them, I persecuted them even to foreign cities. While thus occupied, as I journeyed to Damascus with authority and commission from the chief priests, at midday, O king, along the road I saw a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining around me and those who journeyed with me. And when we all had fallen to the ground, I heard a voice speaking to me and saying in the Hebrew language, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads.’ So I said, ‘Who are You, Lord?’ And He said, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and stand on your feet; for I have appeared to you for this purpose, to make you a minister and a witness both of the things which you have seen and of the things which I will yet reveal to you. I will deliver you from the Jewish people, as well as from the Gentiles, to whom I now send you, to open their eyes, in order to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who are sanctified by faith in Me.’ Therefore, King Agrippa, I was not disobedient to the heavenly vision, but declared first to those in Damascus and in Jerusalem, and throughout all the region of Judea, and then to the Gentiles, that they should repent, turn to God, and do works befitting repentance.” Acts 26:9-20
Paul discovered that he had been fighting against God, but instead of God destroying him Jesus said He would make Paul a minister and a witness of the things which he had seen and the things Jesus would reveal to him in the future. The purpose? “… to open their eyes, in order to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who are sanctified by faith in Me.”
Paul did receive many revelations directly from Christ. He made it clear throughout his ministry that the Gospel message he preached came through the revelation of Jesus Christ (Galatians 1:11-12; Ephesians 3:3) and not from the teachings of any man. Paul told the Corinthians that Jesus had given him many visions and revelations and that he had even been caught up into Paradise.
“I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago—whether in the body I do not know, or whether out of the body I do not know, God knows—such a one was caught up to the third heaven. And I know such a man—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows— how he was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words, which it is not lawful for a man to utter.” 2 Corinthians 12:2-4
This was a remarkable experience for Paul and one that would strengthen him throughout his life. Jesus showed Paul Paradise and allowed him to hear “inexpressible words” which he was not allowed to repeat. The Greek is arrhetos rhema and carries the idea of words that are too sacred to be spoken.
When Paul taught, preached and wrote, he spoke as a man who had been with God – similar to how Moses spoke with God face to face. Paul met Jesus Christ face to face and was well qualified to speak about the Lord’s Crucifixion and Resurrection.
We invite you to watch this video about the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Rejoice! Jesus is Risen!!
“Scripture taken from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.”