Acts 7: Stephen’s victory

Application

The situation was grave. Stephen, a lowly waiter in the church, was standing before a restless crowd of religious/political officials. The charges had been made: Stephen was a proponent of destroying the temple; revolutionizing the Jewish religion; and perhaps most gravely, promoting Jesus. And now, the entire assembly was focused intently on him, impatiently awaiting his response. When he opened his mouth, though, he wasn’t pleading for his life. In fact, he wasn’t even responding to the charges, even though everyone knew that at least two of them were clearly fabricated.

Instead, he offered a lesson in Scripture. A lesson in Scripture, to the chief priests, scribes, and Pharisees! From a waiter? Was he insane?

Even more, though, this wasn’t just some overview of the Scriptures. As Stephen continued, it became clear that he was trying to make a point. The Israelites had rejected Joseph, who was later used by God to save them from the famine. They had rejected Moses, who was then used by God to deliver them from slavery. They had rejected God Himself, even at the foot of a burning mount, choosing instead to dance around a golden idol they made with their own hands. And they had rejected God’s Chosen One, this same Jesus Christ.

I imagine that there was a stunned silence when Stephen finished. A collective gasp when he announced that he could see Jesus sitting at the right hand of God in heaven. And then came the first shout: “Blasphemy!” That first exclamation was picked up and echoed throughout the chamber, and within a second or two, the entire crowd was transformed into a raging mob, rushing forward, yelling at the top of their lungs so they could hear no more.

There was, of course, nothing Stephen could do to resist them, and within moments, he was standing at the edge of town, surrounded by a ring of humanity brandishing large stones. The first one hit his shoulder, shattering it. The second one, his leg, snapping it so that he crumpled to the ground. And then the maelstrom came. Stone after stone rained down on Stephen, each impact reminding him of his already-sealed fate. But as this deadly hailstorm continued, a strange peace descended on him, and in that peace, Stephen prayed.

“Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”

He knew he was going to die. And yet, while most people in his situation would likely do one of two things – yell at the top of their lungs in anger or cry at the top of their lungs in fear – Stephen did neither. In fact, he didn’t even curl up in a ball and start to whimper. Rather, in Stephen’s prayer, we see an acknowledgment that Jesus had brought him to this point. Jesus was about to take him home to heaven. And that was okay. Now, I can’t possibly imagine that there wasn’t even the slightest glint of anger in Stephen, and I can’t fathom that there wouldn’t be at least a hint of fear. Yet, more powerful than both of those was the hope that he had in Jesus Christ. In the next few moments, Stephen was bound for heaven, and that hope, because it was real, gave him an undeniable, overwhelming peace. But Stephen’s prayer wasn’t done.

“Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”

As profound as the first statement of this two-sentence prayer was, this might have been even more amazing. Not only did Stephen look to heaven and know peace – something which is hard enough for me to imagine! – but he then asked the Lord to forgive those who were still throwing stones. The request is deliberately reminiscent of Jesus’ prayer on the cross, and it represented two things: Stephen’s forgiveness of the mob, and his sincere desire for God to forgive them, too. In other words, this prayer was Jesus’ words in Matthew 6:14-15 – “If you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive you” (NIV) – put to work.

What an astounding example of Christ-likeness! Stephen endured brutal pain and death at the hands of an angry mob, and his simple prayer revealed obedience, faith, hope, peace, and even forgiveness!

Would I respond the same way in a similar situation?

Honestly, I don’t know. I mean, I hope I never have to find out, but what if I do find myself some day in a similar situation? I know that we like to talk big, but would I end up like Peter, who resolutely pronounced that all the other disciples might fall away but not him, and disown Jesus as soon as people asked if I knew him? And even if I didn’t disown Jesus, would I have the clarity of mind to say, “Hey, Lord, here I come,” and “Forgive these guys”? I don’t know.

As American Christians, we don’t really know what it is to contend for the faith like the disciples did. We might suffer a little teasing, some rolling of the eyes, but people don’t get martyred in America for professing faith in Jesus Christ. The challenge of Stephen’s account is to pray and prepare through Bible study and self-control and ministry for the day that we might face the same situation. May we all have a faith strong enough, true enough, real enough, that, even as the stones are raining down upon our broken body, our attention is on the goal: eternal life with Jesus Christ our Lord.

Notes

  • (2) Stephen sees no reason to answer the high priest’s question. Instead, he embarks on one of the great sermons of the NT. I suspect he recognized two things: (1) anyone who was interested in justice and who had listened to the accusations would find him innocent, and (2) there were none of those people in the room; this mob was intent on punishing him. Would I have had the mental clarity and spiritual resolve to witness as boldly as he under such circumstances?
  • (2-53) If I was going to outline Stephen’s sermon:
    • Israel rejected Joseph (2-16).
      • God raised up Joseph.
      • The people rejected Joseph.
      • God used Joseph to provide for His people.
    • Israel rejected Moses (17-36).
      • God raised up Moses.
      • The people rejected Moses.
      • God used Moses to deliver His people.
    • Israel rejected God (37-50).
      • God promised to provide.
      • The people rejected God.
      • God proved Himself through His presence.
    • Israel rejected Messiah (51-53).
      • The prophets predicted the Christ.
      • Israel rejected Jesus the Christ.
      • (Jesus the Christ would save Israel.)
  • (54) How typical; the so-called people of God become furious when confronted with the reality of the gospel message.
  • (55-56) By my standards, this was probably not the right thing to say if Stephen wanted to live. But (1) I suspect that the mob was already at work, (2) God aimed to remove any and all remaining ambiguity as to the identity of the Christ, and (3) God provided Stephen with the reassurance and grace he would need in the coming moments.
  • (57-58) Ordinarily, the Jews needed permission to execute someone. This spontaneous mob action defied law and order again!
  • (58) Meet Saul, who was watching the stoning of Stephen, implicitly approving of his death, and would later in life become perhaps the greatest witness to Jesus the world has ever known. Oh, the power of God’s grace!
  • (59-60) Stephen knew what was going on. He was going to die. Rather than get angry and/or afraid, though, his prayer is simple: “I’m yours, Jesus. Forgive them.” Oh, that my prayer would be the same when I’m facing persecution!
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1 Response to “Acts 7: Stephen’s victory”


  1. 1 Keith Isley September 17, 2009 at 6:35 pm

    Good stuff here. I especially like this observation:

    As American Christians, we don’t really know what it is to contend for the faith like the disciples did. We might suffer a little teasing, some rolling of the eyes, but people don’t get martyred in America for professing faith in Jesus Christ. The challenge of Stephen’s account is to pray and prepare through Bible study and self-control and ministry for the day that we might face the same situation. May we all have a faith strong enough, true enough, real enough, that, even as the stones are raining down upon our broken body, our attention is on the goal: eternal life with Jesus Christ our Lord.


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