April 18, 2010

The Blood of the Martyrs

What a victory this is for the righteous! With each stone cast the righteousness of God is being defended. This man had the gall to call out the members of the Sanhedrin—the Sanhedrin—for stamping down the law and ignoring the spirit of God. For his own daring to trample on the word of God and the group of men chosen to uphold it he is rightfully being sent to the grave. I am honored to be able to guard the coats of those who are more actively participating in this righteous cleansing of the land of Israel from the poison of this evil man. I am proud to enable them to carry out the works of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in this way. I would not want to see their cloaks sullied by the dirt on which this man’s vile feet had been drug. The cloaks themselves would have to then be burned for there is certainly no way they could be made clean again from such a stain. Worse yet, they could be stained with his blood. Certainly the life force of such a man as this would cause the coats to fall to tatters simply by touching them. Just like we are made clean by the sprinkling of the blood of a spotless lamb as laid out by the Great Lawgiver himself, the sprinkling of the blood of one so unrighteous as this would surely condemn the victim to a lifetime of defilement. The stigma would be worse than that of the leper. Why this man’s lord is said to have even touched lepers. His uncleanness knows no bounds. I pray that as his blood soaks into the ground the seeds will be planted deeply for the end of this movement. I pray this spells the beginning of the end for these followers of Yeshua.

What am I talking about, you ask? Allow me to tell you how we got here. And I will tell you with honesty: the rapidity with which this movement has spread throughout our holy city is truly disturbing. There have been false messianic movements before, but none have seemed to have followers so dedicated, nor so successful in winning converts. There were even two members of the Sanhedrin itself who revealed themselves to be his followers after his death. That is when the real trouble began. The religious leaders of the Jews thought that seeing this Rabbi Yeshua ben Yosef put to death at the hands of Rome for being a political insurrectionist would be enough to squelch the movement that was forming around his teachings, but it seems this hydra has come back not with two heads but with a dozen. On the day after the Sabbath after which this Yeshua was put to death word began to circulate that his followers were reporting having seen him alive again. They were claiming that he had risen from the dead. Even the detachment of soldiers sent to guard his tomb reported quietly to the priests of some strange events occurring there. It cost us dearly to keep them breathing and their story quiet. The plain fact, though, is that dead people stay dead; especially the unrighteous dead such as this trouble-making Rabbi. I confess I wish I could have attended his execution. Surely there was a smile on the face of God as this one who so grossly offended the clear teachings of the Law of Moses met his end. Yet with his spilled blood it seems that his movement only grew stronger.

I will never forget the reports from last year’s Feast of Pentecost. They say that 3,000 committed themselves to the Way on a single day. It was all in response to the leader of the group, this Simon, proclaiming his so-called “good news.” The reports all agree that he is a powerful speaker, but 3,000? I fear how many of these might have taken his blasphemes back to their homelands. We will have to dispatch messengers to the synagogues in all these places to be on the lookout for the teachings of this Yeshua. They will have to be warned how many fall so easily into his lies. If only powerful speaking were the worst of our woes, though. Next there came reports of these sent ones, apostles I believe they are called, performing some of the same signs and wonders that Yeshua himself was reported to have done. It must have taken a great deal of their time together to train them so thoroughly in these obviously dark arts. It takes an especially pernicious demon to be able to masquerade as a one of the light.

Well, this pattern of false teachings and signs and wonders went on for a few weeks. It was clear that this movement was not going to simply fizzle out on its own so the ruling body had to intervene. The inquisition was a spectacle in itself. There were many curious religious leaders who had consciously avoided contact with these false teachers for fear of being taken by their lies who used the trial as an excuse to catch a glimpse of these two men who were causing such an uproar. They should be ashamed of their weak faith. Simon and Yohannes, the clear leaders of the movement, were much bolder than even I thought they would be. There, in front of the full gathered weight of the religious leaders of Jerusalem—Pharisees, Sadducees, scribes, priests—they proclaimed the message about their risen rabbi again. That these two country bumpkins could defend themselves so powerfully was an impressive feat, I’ll admit. They proclaimed the lies of Yeshua with an eloquence that left even Gamaliel himself speechless for a moment. I confess they even had a grasp of the Scriptures that boldly belied their lack of formal training. Of course their interpretations were all wrong, but with some training these men could have proven to be leaders among the Sanhedrin members. It was almost like there was some other power in them, enabling them to speak with such boldness. There is no questioning that they had great faith in their convictions, but how sad that they could place such faith in something so false. Were it not for the offensiveness of their falsehoods they would almost be a pitiable case. The Sanhedrin warned them sternly and even threatened their lives if they continued down the path they were walking, but they could not come up with a single charge that would stick. These two were very judicious with their words. They seemed to know very well which lines they could cross and which lines they could not. In the end of this first battle the two walked away looking even more empowered than they did when they arrived. Such arrogance will certainly prove to be their undoing.

Indeed, their arrogance kept them proclaiming their message of salvation for the Jews to all who cared to listen —as if we could find it in a place other than the Law. There were reports of outrageous acts of generosity by the followers of the Way, as they called themselves. Men were said to have sold entire tracts of land and brought the money to the feet of the apostles so that the money could be used to aid the poor of Jerusalem. What kinds of brainwashing techniques are they using to convince wealthy men to simply throw away their property in this way? The Council debated on this long into several nights. If they attract many more wealthy followers and if these followers choose to sell their land to the Romans staining our land the whole of Israel could cease to belong to its rightful owners! I will tell you, though, that I heard of an episode that will make some of my wealthier brethren think twice before following this pattern. There was a couple, Ananias and Sapphira were there names, who sold their land, held back some of the money, and lied to the apostles about handing over the whole amount to them. It is said they were struck down on the spot. We are working on ways to embellish the details of this story some to use it for our own purposes. Who would follow in the ways of these murderous wizards who know the very thoughts of men?

We will have to act quickly because this event seemed to cause a swell of devotion among the poor and the sick of the city. In fact, the continued reports of miraculous healings and even bolder teachings caused things to come to a head once again. The council had Simon and the other apostles jailed. They had to act to protect the people of Judah from incurring the wrath of God in placing their faith in such blasphemes as this. They must have had a man or two on the inside, however, because some time during the night the entire bunch of them escaped their cells. The jailers howled and protested that they were all loyal to the Jews, but how else does one explain a jail cell door opening in the night? Are we to believe God actually was helping them in some way? The next morning they were discovered in the Temple courtyard proclaiming their message for all the worshipers to hear. Their boldness knows no bounds! There were special sacrifices offered in the Temple for the cleansing of the place from the vile words this group was proclaiming. The rage among the Council was evident and the general feeling was that the men simply be put to death. As usual, Gamaliel’s cooler head prevailed and he impressed upon us the need for moderation in our spirited defense of orthodoxy. If these men were blasphemers and false prophets their movement would fizzle out with little fuss. If some how these men were truly speaking the words of God then not only would they succeed, but the Council should not be standing in their way but supporting them. This upset many of the Council members, but they followed his words. Could these men and their offensive words truly be from God? I nearly perish at the thought. The hotter heads of the Council were assuaged when the group was beaten soundly before being sent away with another gag order. And though I supported the sentiment of the punishment, in my heart I wondered about its effectiveness. It seems that each time the blood of these followers of the Way is spilled, each time they are made to sacrifice, their movement grows stronger. What we intend to sow seeds of fear and doubting seems only to sow seeds of encouragement and strength.

Well, somewhat unsurprisingly the church continued to grow. This was disturbing, but then we saw a glimmer of hope for our righteous cause. They began to have administrative and organizational problems. They did not have the structure of the true religion of the Jews to help stabilize their growth. They were growing too big too quickly and like a 200 pound toddler were threatening to topple over. Like a building frame with no supporting walls on the inside they were at risk of collapsing inwardly upon themselves. You see the Gentile members of the movement felt they were being overlooked, particularly when it came to the poorer Gentiles receiving aid. Longstanding prejudices were coming in to play. They may have claimed to be powered by God Himself, but they were still just men. The sincere hope of the Sanhedrin members was that these problems would prove to be their undoing. We even sent some men to their meetings to stir up this pile of coals waiting to ignite. But they leapt over this hurdle almost as if God really was helping them. They simply appointed some Gentile leaders to help make sure the needs of their brethren were being met. One of these was a man named Stephen.

Of the seven men appointed to this task, they got more than they bargained for in Stephen. Reports were that his proclamations of the Gospel, as they were calling it, rivaled Simon’s in power and effectiveness. He was tall and handsome and charismatic. He was in effect an ideal front man for the group. Why he even demonstrated his own knowledge of the dark arts the apostles themselves had been practicing. He was so gallant in his witness that some of our brothers from the Synagogue for Freedmen decided to take it upon themselves to bring him down. Their intentions were noble, but it was clear even to the members of the Council that they were no match for this man. He cut them down with a mere glancing blow. So they decided to fight dirty. They pooled their resources and hired some local rabble-rousers to circulate stories that Stephen had blasphemed Moses and God. This plot actually gained steam and eventually led to his being brought before the council to be tried on these false charges. That’s right: we knew the charges were false. We had our spies out listening to him—men we could trust to not be pulled in by his Siren song. But what an opportunity this presented to strike right at the heart of this blasphemous movement! If we could just find something in his testimony on which we could indict him as a political insurrectionist like Yeshua himself, perhaps this would be the victory strike we’ve been waiting for. If one so charismatic as this Stephen could be put down it would surely discourage those who worked under him.

As it turned out, he played directly into our hands. He made a bold defense in which he traced the movement of God in the history of the people of Israel in order to make the case that this Yeshua was the ultimate fulfillment of all He had done. He gave us scholars of the Law and of the history of our people a history lesson. This gall was on an entirely different plane than that of Simon and Yohannes. They at least were practicing Jews (however poorly). This man was a Greek; lecturing Jews about Jewish history. He told us the story of our father Abraham and his journey from Mesopotamia to Israel as prompted by God. He related the inception of circumcision and the passing of this sacred rite from Abraham to Isaac to Jacob and the rest of Israel’s sons. He reminded us of the tale of Moses and our ancestors’ journey through the wilderness to the Promised Land. He even made it a point to include the sad episode when the people turned on God to worship a golden calf made by the great high priest Aaron. He tried to relate our rejection of the teachings of Yeshua in favor of the Law Moses gave us to this foolish betrayal of our God. When he finally made clear his indictment of us (he obviously misunderstood who was trying whom), the gathered crowd went wild with anger. Who could blame them? Listen to his words: “And you continue, so bullheaded! Calluses on your hearts, flaps on your ears! Deliberately ignoring the Holy Spirit, you’re just like your ancestors. Was there ever a prophet who didn’t get the same treatment? Your ancestors killed anyone who dared talk about the coming of the Just One. And you’ve kept up the family tradition—traitors and murderers, all of you. You had God’s Law handed to you by angels—gift-wrapped!—and you squandered it!”

How could we not see such an arrogant man stoned for his clear blasphemes against the Law, against Moses, and against our God? The mob grabbed Stephen and hauled him to the outskirts of town. Once there, I was unfortunately denied the privilege of casting any stones at him, but I was afforded the opportunity to guard the coats of those who did so they would not become ceremonially unclean. What I can tell you, though, is that I will not allow this movement to advance any further. I, Saul of Tarsus, will make sure it flounders and dies.

Now that you know my story, may I speak freely with you for a moment longer? If you will give me your word to not let this confession leave our gathering this morning, I will tell you that I have been at times troubled by this Yeshua movement and its followers. Not troubled in the way I have been telling you, but troubled by the question of its veracity. What if what these men are proclaiming is actually the truth? What if the Law of Moses is truly powerless to make us righteous? I know the history of our people better than most. Though I am half Greek by birth, I have been fully immersed in the ways of the people of Israel from the time I was quite young. I have risen through the ranks of religious leadership faster than nearly all those who came before me. I know the Law and I know our history like the back of my hand. When I heard Stephen retell the story of the people of Israel, his facts were not inaccurate. The story of our people is a sad one because our hearts were always cheating. Our forefathers refused to remain faithful to our God and so He let them experience the full weight of their decision. And we know that God no more lives in the Temple than He lives anywhere else in the world. He is far too mighty for a mere building to contain His splendor. So then how could His glory be restricted to the body of a single man as Yeshua claimed? Yet all of our history points to God coming Himself to suffer and die so that His people might be redeemed. History looks forward to a mighty deliverer, but also one who suffers. What if the suffering deliverer was to come before the mighty one?

Even more troubling is this fact: each time the Way is persecuted, each time the blood of its members is spilled, it seems to grow stronger. Stephen is the first of the movement to be killed in such a way, but several others have received vicious beatings as a warning to keep their mouths shut. After each beating, however, the victim seems to leave even more emboldened than he was when he entered the meeting place. Rather than their blood causing the movement to retract, it causes it to expand. It’s like the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. Though his understanding of God seems to me to be incorrect, it is impossible to argue with the fact that Stephen was clearly passionately sincere in his beliefs. Now of course sincerity must be undergirded by truth to have any meaning—I could sincerely believe I could fly and be sincerely wrong—but what if there is some truth to what he said? Clearly Stephen had given himself completely into what he believed were God’s hands. What an awesome risk to take a step like that without having any idea of the consequences. Could God really use His people in such a way—to expand His reign through His people’s suffering? What else might He call them to give up in order to follow Him? Could He redeem such a sacrifice as Stephen’s? I have already seen with my own eyes how a small sacrifice of flesh has stretched to draw many more to follow Yeshua than if no such sacrifice had been made. The blood of the martyrs is clearly the seed of the church, but could something other than blood serve as an adequate sacrifice? What if He could take anything His followers sacrificed for His sake and use it to expand His reign? Surely all are not called to die or the movement itself would die. But what if all are called to sacrifice; to give of themselves to God; to give Him whatever stands in their way of reaching Him regardless of the size? Why then this “blood” from these “martyrs” would surely be the seed of the church. This would be how God’s reign is advanced in the world. Without question God could do it some other way that did not involve men and women. Yet has He truly chosen to do the harder (and perhaps even better) thing of working through His people? Could He really work in spite of human frailties? Could the blood of the martyrs be the seed of the church?

Make no mistake: it certainly appears that Stephen has failed. He had a great thing going as far as the Yeshua movement was concerned, but he didn’t know when to keep his mouth shut and so it was shut for him. This should be the end of the story. But what if in God’s eyes this is only the beginning? The thing about seeds is that they grow. Even if all of this is not true, I wonder what kind of seeds I am planting so that God’s reign can expand on earth. Am I even planting any? If God’s purposes are consistently advanced through the sacrifices of His people then what kinds of sacrifices are we making? What kind of seeds are we planting? Ah, but this is all just me thinking in places I should not be. This Stephen was surely a blasphemer and has met his fitting end. It is my duty now to drive the rest of these followers of the Way out of Jerusalem for good. And from there I will chase them to the ends of the earth if I have to in order stomp this movement out of existence once and for all. In fact, I have a tripped planned to Damascus soon with some of my associates to authorize the synagogue there to persecute Yeshua followers and even to lead the effort myself. I only pray that I’m wrong about the blood of these martyrs being the seed of the church.