Aside

MODERN-DAY REPORTER SERIES:

BEWARE – THE CLOAK-HOLDER!
by Bill Byrnes

Psalms: 18:48:  “ He delivereth me from mine enemies: yea, he liftest me up above those that rise up against me. He hast delivered me from the violent man.”

Jerusalem:34 A.D.- Reporter: Bill Byrnes — This was going to be a very long day, but there was no choice–I saw a huge story looming and had to be part of it. I had become an assistant Muleteer in a small caravan heading to Damascus. The real story was its owner–the infamous Saul of Tarsus; his purpose–to go to Damascus and  persecute any Christian converts he could find. The plan would follow the same methodology he used in Jerusalem and towns into the Jordan Valley, and as far away as Scythopolis.  He would gather up the Nazarenes (the name Temple clergy had given to followers of Jesus), bring them to local synagogues where judgments were made, then provoke them into confrontations ending with beatings and tortures. There were, of course, some ensuing deaths.
There would be plenty of time to consider the best way to approach my report. It was a week’s journey to Damascus. Despite the  very hard work involved with being assistant to the mule-drivers, it was the only way to be on the front edge of a massive story.

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“It was the only way to be of a massive story…”
We left at daybreak, and looking back from Mt. Scopus, Jerusalem had such a  pretty, serene glow. It was the type of glow many towns had before its inhabitants awakened.
We  took the usual route  to Ginae  in the plain of Esdrelon. Once there, our guides decided  to head to the western shore of the lake of Galilee and go northward. We crossed the Jordan river about halfway to the Lake of the Marshes. We kept trekking east into the upland region for about five hours until we came to a small town that lay at the intersection with the road to Gilead. Thus far, our trip has taken approximately 4 1/2days and the whole time, my thinking focused on the meteoric rise of Saul of Tarsus– persecutor!

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“We crossed the Jordan River…”
Saul was born in Tarsus, a city of Cilicia (in Asia Minor–modern day Turkey) approximately the same time as Jesus. His parents were devout Pharisees and his father traced his lineage back to the tribe of Benjamin- who had given the Hebrews their first king–Saul. His dad, a wealthy textile merchant, was also a Roman citizen, so he gave Saul a Roman name–Paul–a name to be used among Gentiles including the Greek speaking peoples common to the area.(This was a common practice for Jews outside the “homeland”– their real names to be used only among their own kind)  The legacies of family wealth and Roman citizenship would prove invaluable for Saul’s development and later success. With Roman citizenship, he could travel anywhere within the empire. His family’s wealth meant that he didn’t have to be pressed into servitude, and instead, could pursue scholarly interests, which he did.

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Saul–Persecutor!
Although a contemporary of Jesus, Saul never met him. He grew up in Tarsus and left for Jerusalem at age 17-18. His father hoped he would continue in the Pharisee tradition and above all else–keep to the law of God. After beginning his studies at the Temple, Saul was very impressed with the noted Pharisaic scholar-Gamaliel, but found himself lacking in knowledge of the ancient Hebrew language and scriptures. After checking with local scholars he decided to visit the main colony of the Essenes, a devout sect of Jews located upon a shelf above the plain bordering the Dead Sea. They lived in a walled-in community and were totally isolated from any contact with the outside world except for occasional trips to the Temple in Jerusalem. They were extremely committed to living in the “old ways”. They were very active in scholarly pursuits and constantly transcribed books onto leather scrolls. His “visit” lasted more then two years and during that time, Saul established the foundation of knowledge he was seeking. However, that was also the same time that Jesus of Nazareth carried on his ministry in Galilee. Because of their isolation, the Essenes (and Saul) were totally unaware of Jesus’ passing thru Jericho-only a few miles on the other side of the river from them. Of course, this also meant the Essene colony knew nothing about Jesus’ arrest, trial and crucifixion. Saul learned of these momentous events from visitors to the compound and soon after, left for Jerusalem.
It’s interesting to note that during Saul’s first stay at the Temple in Jerusalem, his qualifications drew interest from no less than Caiaphas- the High Priest. It’s no surprise, then, that after his return he was quickly brought up to date on the surging Nazarene(Christian) movement. After the first Pentecost, the movement was spreading rapidly, especially into areas inhabited by Hellenistic Jews…like Damascus. Saul found this deeply troubling. This new movement, if it spread far enough into the Gentile world, could be viewed as a threat by the Roman empire, which had been very good to Jews within its domain. Also, it ran against his Pharisaic beliefs. Unnamed sources, associates of young Saul, said that at this time he concluded that the best course of action was to stop the movement before it started spreading into the Roman world.
He started  going to meetings at the house of one of the High priests with a group of other like-minded young men. They realized that Saul would be their best choice to lead them. He spoke Greek, so he could easily identify with Hellenistic Jews, and, his Roman citizenship meant his movements in areas outside Judea wouldn’t draw Roman suspicions. Next question was: how to begin!
Since the episode with the “gift of tongues” on the first Pentecost, Temple priests had felt more threatened, and confused, each time they heard about the miracles of healing and the subsequent conversions. When John and Peter healed the lame man at the East Gate(see last article- “Solomon’s Porch”) they were imprisoned, then released because the priests didn’t want to chance angering the followers who were still on the Temple grounds. Not long after, Peter and John were again arrested while visiting Solomon’s Porch and preaching to the public. After being jailed, their cell door was “miraculously” unlocked and they went right back to preaching the message of Jesus. This enraged the priests, who wanted to kill them. Fortunately for them, Saul’s mentor, Gamaliel addressed the gathering. He said that if this movement was God’s plan they wouldn’t be able to stop it, if it wasn’t, then it would soon fall apart, as was the case with the beliefs of previous false prophets. This made sense to the priests, who decided to beat Peter and John and send them on their way.

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” Their cell was miraculously opened…”
The healings and conversions continued and a new follower, Stephen, became prominent with his Temple preaching. Stephen worked with the disciples in dispensing food to the needy. Friends admit that he was full of the “Holy Spirit”, and was a gifted speaker. He was also credited with some healing miracles. Being only a co-worker of the disciples, and not one of the twelve leaders, he quickly drew the attention of Saul and his conspirators. Indeed, Stephen would be their initial target.
It’s still not clear whether Saul’s group went out and arrested Stephen, or if they waited for one of his regular Temple visits. Either way, when Stephen addressed the priests, their previous frustrations became quite clear. They were enraged at him. Witnesses at the gathering said that Saul seized the moment and shouted, “Blasphemy!”, knowing his word would incite the others. Stephen was dragged out of the Temple, into the city streets, and stoned to death! What’s interesting to note is that Saul, though  leading the group, never picked up a stone. Instead, he held the cloaks of the murderous group. When it was over, Saul comforted the priests, and those involved, by saying, “It is a good thing he was killed.”. From this moment on he was treated with great respect. And, any of the new Christians definitely had to beware of the coat-holder!  A “reign of terror” against these new converts to Jesus was beginning. It’s leader was Saul of Tarsus!

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” …dragged into the street and stoned to death…”
Several campaigns later, Saul was on the verge of his most ambitious undertaking yet–Damascus. His usual “henchmen” from the Jerusalem temple were not with him, probably because he wanted to avoid drawing attention from the Romans.
Inhabitants of the small village we stopped in warned that Eastern tribesmen were robbing caravans along the Damascus road. They advised that it would be better to wait until tomorrow and we could team up with another Damascus-bound caravan that was overdue. This way, it might be too large a target for the outlaws to attack. Saul ignored their warnings and forged ahead. It was still 12-13 hours ahead, including an overnight stop, and he didn’t want to delay his journey for one minute longer than necessary.
We were traveling on some rough road, thru a bare, rocky area West of the Trachonitis Range–it’s volcanic hills showing a deep purple façade. Looking ahead even further, to the Northwest, we saw the massive Mt. Hermon, complete with snow covered peaks despite the fact that it was May. We would have to pass by the entire base of the mountain before arriving in Damascus.
Unimpressed by the scenery, Saul kept up a pace that left us lagging. Undaunted, his pace never lessened. Despite our best efforts, we fell further behind. It was difficult to keep him in our sight. Then we noticed the weather starting to change. It appeared his horse also sensed it as it made nervous attempts to outdistance the dark clouds rolling off of Mt. Hermon. The dark clouds soon became darker, the winds increased dramatically causing temperatures to plummet. The clouds continued their metamorphosis into an almost-black hue! My fellow muleteers had been saying that Spring storms coming off of Mt. Hermon could drop to bone-chilling extremes. We stopped, as we all started reaching for the packs carrying our warm Cilicium coats.(Cilicium was the name given to garments made in Cilicia, which were standard cold-weather gear for Roman soldiers. Many of these coats were made by Saul’s father and, undoubtedly, played a large role in his being granted Roman citizenship.) As I slipped into my coat, I realized that Saul carried no provisions on his horse. When I told this to my mule driver he yelped something to the effect of, “You noticed –start running with a coat for the boss! A frozen owner would be unable to pay wages!”
I took off in Saul’s direction. He was barely visible in the heavy cloud cover ahead. I was cursing my lack of speed when I looked ahead, trying to focus in on Saul’s distance, and what I saw stopped me almost dead in my tracks! His horse had made it to a walled enclosure(khan), but just before it entered, it stumbled, throwing its rider. I had managed to reach a point  approximately 50 yards behind him. The dark clouds surrounded Saul. I dropped to my knees, awestruck, when an strange eerie light pierced thru the clouds- as if it were seeking just him! Once it found its target, the sounds of the violent storm ceased. All I could hear was a muted thunder. It was strange because it was not the usual ominous sound of thunder–but it sounded– almost soft with staccato rythym–the sound was almost–well–it sounded– CONVERSATIONAL! The sounds seemed  incredulous– and then I noticed something that was truly a sight for the ages…Saul, the dreaded persecutor , was lying prostrate on the ground, his arms straight in front of him palms down, as if he was WORSHIPPING that light!
My co-workers caught up to me as the surrounding area resumed its normalcy as rapidly as it had lost it. One of Saul’s assistants raced ahead to help his master up and then lead him into the enclosed area to rest. When we caught up to them what we discovered chilled us as much as the storm: he was BLIND–Saul of Tarsus was blind! When we asked his helper what we could do, he said  just rest until the morning, then we would continue into Damascus. As I laid down to rest, I inched towards the reclined invalid as much as I could without appearing menacing. It was enough to barely hear Saul’s conversation. His voice, understandably, was very strained when he told his helper, “…then I asked him, ‘What shall I do Lord?’ Then he said, ‘Go into Damascus, and you will be told what to do.’ ”

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Saul–blinded by the cloud!!
I was shocked by what I just heard. But it had to be true–Saul of Tarsus was not worshipping light in a storm–he was talking with God! He had just been converted to the Christian belief! Absolutely incredible!
Fatigue was overcoming me quickly. My last thoughts for this momentous day were about that prophetic statement of Gamaliel:  “If this new movement was part of God’s plan, no one could stop it.”  Well, after what I just observed–I don’t think anyone will. I sort of smirked when I thought about God’s template for change. What’ll happen when this new religion confronts the mighty Roman empire? Will God change them like he just changed Saul? “Oh…that’ll be the day!”, I thought. Then I fell into the caress of a much needed, wonderful sleep.

***Note: Don’t stop here–READ “Acts of the Apostles” – located in a Bible near you! It really is the 2nd greatest story ever told!  

Aside

Modern-Day Reporter Series

TONGUES OF FIRE
“…I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and daughters shall prophesy. Your old men will dream dreams and young men shall see visions.”   Joel:2:28

PART 1:
SOLOMON’S PORCH

Jerusalem, 33A.D. Reporter: Bill Byrnes —  At this moment, I’m standing in the dazzling portico, along the East side of the Temple, known as Solomon’s Porch. It is a beautiful remnant of the original Temple of Solomon. Originally, this was Solomon’s Hall of Judgment, where the king would dispense justice. It was covered with cedar from floor to ceiling. The current porch-type area was restored by King Herod and rests upon a massive retaining wall constructed of “marvelous” stones, adjacent to the East (or “Beautiful”) Gate. As I look around, it’s easy to see why this was a favorite location for Jesus to mingle, and, to teach. Since his crucifixion, his disciples have met here quite often. Cloistered walkways provide for private or semi-private discussions, with the courtyard being a perfect setting for public discussions.

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Solomon’s Porch

 
However, this beautiful serenity has been disturbed– I’ve just witnessed an occurrence so awesome as to leave me almost dumbstruck. A man, lame from birth, who, daily, had been placed by relatives next to the East Gate of the Temple , WALKED onto this historic area! He was holding onto Peter and John, disciples of slain religious leader-Jesus of Nazareth, but it was clear that the man walked under his own power!  Earlier today, when I entered thru the East Gate, I saw him there, asking for alms–and he was lame! As he moved, he gave praise to God for healing him. When Jesus was alive, these healings were commonplace–but he’s not here now and there’s just been a miraculous healing!
As I gather my thoughts, I realize the best way to continue this story is to move backwards. My last article ended with the realization that this story would be best served by continuing into Galilee(see “Scriptures Fulfilled–Tomb is Empty”), especially after suddenly meeting Mary Magdalene. We crossed paths as I was heading towards  Jesus’ tomb. At the time, there was no reason to doubt the account of an empty tomb, but it was her euphoric state, almost trance-like, that made me change direction. When she asked me if I “saw him”, I didn’t know who she was referring to. However, over the next 50 days, I realized, without ANY doubts,  to whom she was referring.

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” I realized to whom she was referring.”

 

After I returned to Galilee, my first step was to locate the disciples of Jesus. Several tense discussions with some of the few believers I encountered, led me to the Cenacle – or “upper room” – of a small synagogue on Mt Zion. This location made perfect sense–it was, after all, the site of Jesus’ Last Supper with his followers, and also the site of what has been termed, the “blessing of the feet.”  But, I was not allowed to even get close to it. Friends of the eleven remaining followers would not let me into the synagogue. I could understand their fear…if the Son of God  was just killed…how could they presume safety? After I convinced them I was no threat I was told that this was, indeed, the disciples’  habitat. However, I was not allowed to stay.
Over the next six weeks, repeated trips to the site–and several conversations with sources  to whom I had to swear permanent anonymity- yielded the following incredible statements. When we met on the road to Galilee, the reason Magdalene had that look on her face was because she claimed to have seen and spoken with Jesus himself! In fact, that very evening, Jesus made the first of several appearances to his disciples. This was behind closed doors at the Cenacle. At these meetings Jesus stressed to his followers that they must not leave Jerusalem. They should wait for a “baptism with the Holy Spirit”. This would give them all the skills and powers they would need to be “witnesses” for him. In fact, exactly forty days after his death–he said goodbye to his eleven followers and ascended into the Heavens, where white clouds hid him from sight!

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Seeing the miraculous healing on Solomon’s Porch made these details stand out in my mind more than they did when I first heard them. After all, at what point does one disembark from  the restrictions of reality into a journey of faith? I discovered that answer only ten days after Jesus’  ascension, and exactly fifty days after his death.
It was during the Khag Shavuot, or Feast of Weeks. that a most incredible happening took place. Since this is one of the few pilgrimage festivals, Jews from every country in the world were in Jerusalem. It was a Sunday morning, and I was in the street trying to get what information I could. I had just learned that Matthias was  elected as a new disciple, taking the place of Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed Jesus at Gethsemane. Many of the pilgrims were in the street. Suddenly, the whole area was blanketed by an extreme noise. It sounded like very strong winds, but, noise only–no actual wind! All present quickly determined that the noise emanated from inside the Cenacle. We waited for what would happen next. It wasn’t long before the doors of the small synagogue opened wide and all twelve Apostles came into the street and started talking to the ever-growing crowds. The amazing part of this story is that each of the twelve were talking different languages!
The crowd kept growing. Thousands were present, each of them hearing the message in their native tongue! As the crowd grew, the voices easily projected over the distance between them and their entire audience! Even ambient street noises seemed to disappear. Leaders of the different ethnic groups within the crowd asserted words to the effect of : “Look, aren’t all these men common workers from Galilee? How is it possible that we each hear them in our own languages, telling about the great things God has done?”  They kept asking themselves, “How is this possible?” Some among the crowd, who couldn’t believe these happenings exclaimed, “They have had too much wine?” Then Peter, who led the disciples, said in a voice that sliced thru the noise and silenced the throng, “My fellow Jews…and all in Jerusalem…listen to me! We are not drunk-it’s only nine o’clock in the morning!” He continued explaining the situation by reciting from the book of Joel, stating that it prophesized what was happening. Peter ended his amazing oration with this statement:  “God has made Jesus–the man you nailed to the cross–both Lord and Christ!”

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We are not drunk! It’s only 9:00in the morning!”

 

The crowd remained quiet. Then, in a guilty manner, some of the leaders asked, “What shall we do?”. Peter then commanded: “Change your hearts and lives–BE BAPTIZED–each of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. The gift of the Holy Spirit is for you, your children, and those far away! Save yourselves from the evil of today’s people!”. With that final remark, Peter and the other eleven started baptizing members of the crowd. Hours later–approximately 3,000 new followers of Jesus continued listening to teachings, broke bread together, and prayed together. This entire episode was absolutely astounding to anyone present! As the apostles continued to mix with the crowd there were more “miracles and signs”. The massive crowd settled into a great “respect”  for God.
On my way home, I encountered Mary Magdalene, who answered my biggest question of the day: that noise. She said that the disciples, while seated in the Cenacle, were engulfed by it. Then cloven tongues of fire rested on each of them, and they started conversing in different languages! Her statement, as well as all the other events of the day, made for as much information as I could process. However, I was filled with the irony posed by the appearance of the “cloven-tongues of fire”. At the Tower of Babel, God made many languages, and now, at least temporarily, for a few men, there was only one–the language of God!

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Tongues of Fire!
Over the next several days, the new believers started selling their land and other possessions, intending to give the money to anyone in need. They practically lived together– and shared food with everyone. There were daily meetings at the Temple–group worship was commonplace. And, new believers continued to be baptized. I started hearing a new word to describe the believers–”Christians”, or, followers of  Jesus Christ.
Today, was another of several meetings for more group prayers at the Temple. It was supposed to be a 3:00 prayer service– an agreed upon daily time. At the entrance to the East Gate the lame man saw Peter and John approaching. He asked them for some money. Peter replied, “I don’t have any silver or gold–but I have something else. By the power of Jesus Christ–stand up and walk!”

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After their entrance onto Solomon’s Porch, Peter started preaching to the crowd. As Peter was talking, reality, once again, arrived in the persons of the Captain of the Temple soldiers, Sadducees and other priests. They grabbed the two disciples and led them away.
Despite recent momentous happenings and wonderful tidings, this latest event does not bode well for these “Christians”.

Next: Part 2:  “Beware the Cloak-holder!”

 READ FOR YOURSELF— “The Acts of the Apostles”– in any Bible! It
truly is the 2nd greatest story ever told!

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“God has made Jesus both Lord and Christ!”