I N the far-off city of Tarsus, at the time when Jesus lived at Nazareth, a little boy was born, to whom his parents gave the name of Saul. He was a Roman citizen, because he was born in the Roman province; but he was also a Jew, and was brought up as a very strict Jew indeed. As soon as he could understand anything he was taught lessons out of the Old Testament; and the very first thing he learned would be to reach up and touch the metal box which was fastened to the side of the door, and which held some verses of the Bible written on parchment. Then he would reverently kiss the little hand which had touched the box, just as he saw the grown-up people do.
Although the Bible was his great lesson book, as he grew older there were many other and more difficult things he had to learn; and by the time he was a man he knew all that a strict Pharisee should know, and was very wise and learned indeed.
Rumours, of course, had reached the far-off city of Tarsus about the new Jewish teacher, whom some people called a prophet, and some even said was the Christ. There were tales of His wonderful cures and the miracles He worked; then the news of His Crucifixion and how His followers declared He had risen from the dead. But Saul only grew angry as he listened. The Christ he looked for was a king, not a peasant of Nazareth, and he hated the people who called themselves His followers and said He was the King.
It seemed no use to punish these people, to beat and imprison them, or even to condemn them to death. Nothing daunted them or silenced them. Day by day they grew bolder and bolder, day by day more and more people joined them and shared their belief. It was time to put an end to all this, and Saul eagerly threw himself into the work, determined to stamp out this new religion. Those followers of the Nazarene might try to hide, but his spies would find them and drag them out; they might think to escape him by fleeing to other cities, but he would follow them wherever they went. He was so busy hunting the poor Christians that he had now no time to do anything else.
It happened just then that one of the chief of those Christians, whose name was Stephen, had been seized at Jerusalem and dragged before the High Priest; and hearing this, Saul eagerly hastened to the great city, that he might help in the trial and punishment.
Surely, as he watched that trial, he must have wondered what made these men so bold and fearless. There stood the young man Stephen, alone amongst his enemies, who crowded round him like a pack of hungry wolves eager to devour a lamb. No sign of terror showed in his calm face. Absolutely fearless, he stood out to meet his accusers and make his defence. The lying witnesses could not meet his straightforward gaze, but watched him with shifty eyes, and acknowledged even to themselves that his face was as the face of an angel.
But all unmoved Saul looked on, and when at last the sentence was given that the prisoner should be stoned, there was no pity in his heart, but rather a fierce joy as he went to look on at the execution.
Steadfastly and unmoved, Stephen stood and faced his murderers. Then, looking up towards heaven, a great glory seemed to shine there as if reflected from above. Little wonder that there was no room for fear in Stephen's heart; for there, as he gazed upwards, he saw his Master's face, and knew that He was waiting at God's right hand to welcome His faithful servant.
The cruel stones came hurtling through the air. Little by little the life was beaten out of his body, but never a sign of shrinking did he show. Only as he knelt there the same prayer rose to his lips which his Master had prayed upon the Cross: "Lord, lay not this sin to their charge."
That was the end. Death, stooping down over the poor, bruised body, showed none of its terrors, but was like a kindly sleep, bringing only healing, rest, and peace.
Saul, looking on, saw all this, but still he fiercely held to his own opinions. The man deserved to die. It was the murderers who were right, not the martyr.
But perhaps the remembrance of St. Stephen's face troubled him more than he knew, and made him try to escape from it by hunting the poor Christians more fiercely than ever, so that soon the very name of Saul was a terror to all the followers of the Master.
He hunted them from their hiding-places. Wherever they fled he followed them. It seemed as if he could not rest; and when news was brought to him that many of the Christians had found a refuge in the city of Damascus, five days' journey from Jerusalem, he prepared at once for a fresh hunt. Taking a guard of soldiers with him, he set out with all haste, anxious to reach Damascus as soon as possible.
At last the city came in sight in all its fair beauty of white buildings, set in a garden of green trees and silver olive groves. But Saul was not thinking of its beauty.
It was mid-day, and most travellers rested then in some shade where they might escape the blinding heat of the sun; but Saul was in too great a hurry to rest, and he pressed forward with his band of soldiers.
The fierce heat beat down upon the white road, and dazzled their eyes; but it was not the sunlight which suddenly wrapped them round with such a blinding glare that the whole company fell with their faces to the ground, as if struck by lightning. The light was brighter than any sunlight, and from the midst of the light came a strange sound—a sound which to the soldiers seemed only a confused noise, but which Saul knew to be the voice of God.
"Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me?" said the voice.
From the blinded helpless figure lying there upon the ground the words burst out, "Who art Thou, Lord?"
"I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom thou persecutest," came the voice again.
Saul's proud, fierce spirit was broken. He was as humble as a little child as he listened to that voice. "What shall I do, Lord?" he asked.
There, in the midst of the light, stood Jesus Christ, the King whom he had believed was an impostor. Now, seeing Him as St. Stephen had seen Him, he knew that it was the Master, the Captain of his soul, who spoke to him.
There was a great work before him, said the voice; but first he must go on to the city and wait there until a messenger should come and tell him what he was to do.
The terrified, listening soldiers began to recover. The light had vanished, the noise had ceased, and they stood up upon their feet again. But Saul still lay there, trembling and bewildered, and when they went to raise him they found that he was blind, and could only hold out groping hands in the darkness. So they went on their way as best they could, and led Saul stumbling along the road, until they reached the city.
There for three black days he waited. But in the darkness he learned to pray, and on the third day God's messenger came, and brought light and comfort. The blindness was lifted not only from his eyes, but also from his heart, and he saw clearly that now he must obey the King and fight His battles.
At first the Christians would scarcely believe that the man they so feared was now their friend, and they still distrusted him; but as time went on they were forced to believe in the great change. Just as thoroughly as he had once led the persecution, he now worked with all his might to help them, eager to show his love for the Master, no matter how much pain and suffering fell to his share.
And before many weeks were past he began to suffer with his fellow-Christians. As he had persecuted others, now he himself was the persecuted, and the Jews made up their minds that he must be seized and put to death. Soldiers were set to guard the city gates, and orders were given to arrest him if he tried to escape.
Now the city walls around Damascus were so solid and broad that many houses were built upon them, and their windows looked over the surrounding fields across the moat below. Some of Saul's friends lived in one of these wall houses, and they felt sure that if Saul was to escape the best plan would be to lower him from one of the windows, out of sight of the city guards. So they took a large basket, and fastened it with a rope, and when Saul had climbed into the basket, they lowered it slowly down against the wall, swaying to and fro until it touched the ground.
"The disciples took him by night, and let him down by the wall in a basket."
No one was in sight. It was easy now to cross the moat and make his way across the fields. Saul had for that time, at least, escaped his enemies.