>Q: Acts 7:58 has always perplexed me. It says that during the stoning of Stephen, "the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul." Was this laying down of garments part of some ancient ritual for administering a death sentence? -- S.
A: The Apostle Paul, whose birth name was Saul, was born a half a generation after Jesus and began his interaction with the followers of Jesus as a persecutor of this new Jewish heresy. This verse recounts the death of Stephen, the first Christian martyr, and the laying down of garments makes it clear that Saul/Paul was in favor of Stephen's execution for heresy.
Saul's conversion experience occurred on the road to Damascus, when he witnessed a vision of the risen Christ. This conversion is recorded by Paul in his letter to the Corinthians 15:3-8 and in the Acts 9:3-9; 22:9,12; and 26:12-18. The key to understanding Paul's conversion is the role of Jewish law in achieving salvation. For Jews, the law, along with repentance, prayer and good deeds, is sufficient to achieve salvation. For Paul, the law taught him the nature of sin (Romans 7:7), but he despaired of salvation until he experienced the grace of the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus.
For Jews, to this day, sin is an act, not an original state of being following Adam's sin. Sin can be overcome by each penitent person standing before God in sincere repentance. For Christians, sin is an ultimate obstacle requiring the supervening grace of God through Jesus. This remains the central difference between Christianity in all its forms and all non-Christian religions.
>Q: I wanted to thank you for your column. The warm wisdom you share each week has helped me hang on to what little faith I have left. I guess if I could ask you one question, it would be, how do I revive my faith? I'm 53 and starting over again. After 28 years, my marriage has ended. I did two years in prison in 2004 for property crimes. My health is not good, and I'm very lonely.
God seems distant, and the answer to my prayers always seems to be no! After I got out of prison, I promised both God and myself that I'd never do anything that would hurt anybody again. I've kept that promise. Now, I ask myself every day why I keep going on. Going to church is heartbreaking; it just reminds me of my wife and family. Could you pray for me? (This is a short version of a much longer story.) -- J.
A: I pray for your courage to walk in the path of righteousness. The difference between people and God is that we don't use broken vessels. We throw them out and use new ones, but God is the healer of all broken hearts. When I'm filled with sorrow, I've found comfort in reciting Psalm 130. It was written by King David that you might also look up and find hope to live each day as a journey to the light:
1 Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O Lord.
2 Lord, hear my voice: Let thine ears be attentive to the voice of my supplications.
3 If thou, Lord, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand?
4 But there is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared.
5 I wait for the Lord, my soul doth wait, and in his word do I hope.
6 My soul waiteth for the Lord more than they that watch for the morning: I say, more than they that watch for the morning.
7 Let Israel hope in the Lord: for with the Lord there is mercy, and with him is plenteous redemption.
8 And he shall redeem Israel from all his iniquities.
Rabbi Marc Gellman is happy to try to answer your religious, personal or ethical questions. Send questions only to The God Squad, c/o Tribune Media Services, 2225 Kenmore Ave., Suite 114, Buffalo, NY 14207, or email them to email@example.com.