The persecution, sparked by Stephen's religious murder, was effective in driving many Christians out of Jerusalem (Acts 8:1). But they took the gospel with them and Acts 8:4-40 showed how many more people came to believe in Jesus as a result of Philip's ministry in Samaria and Judea (Acts 1:8). Saul (later called Paul) was present when Stephen was stoned by the Sanhedrin; it stirred his religious zeal to eliminate those who believed in Jesus (then called 'people of the Way') (Acts 22:19-20).
Saul believed that God had challenged him to root out and punish anybody who believed in Jesus. Religiously ambitious, perhaps he wanted to prove his devotion to more senior clerics; maybe they might appoint him to the Sanhedrin. So he asked the high priest for permission to chase the new Christians (who still went to synagogues) to Damascus in Syria. He intended to bring them back to Jerusalem on a charge of blasphemy (Acts 6:11-12).
But the Lord had not sent Saul to destroy the church, but to help Him build it. Saul had believed a lie (Galatians 1:13). However, there was a divine challenge for him and the Lord Jesus confronted him personally. A very bright light stopped him. Dazzled, he fell to the ground; and then Jesus spoke. He knew Saul's name; He knew what Saul had been doing; He identified with His persecuted people so that their suffering was His concern. He asked Saul the simple question: "Why are you persecuting me?"
Religious passion is good, but only if it is directed by the Lord. Otherwise it is foolishly dangerous. Divinely unauthorised spiritual fervour is either motivated by selfish ego, worldly ambition or demonic temptation: often it is a mixture of all three. But the Lord has the right to challenge us, searching our hearts and motives (Psalm 139:23-24); that happens as we read His Word and allow Him to speak to us (Hebrews 4:12-13). "Why?" is a great question because it unlocks motives. Often we do not know what provokes us to action until the Lord challenges us. But when He exposes our deceitful hearts, and we repent, it is the beginning of being truly useful to Him (2 Corinthians 7:8-9).
© Dr Paul Adams