Reading: Acts 6-7.
I was fascinated by Stephen as I read about and pondered over his courage and even joy in the face of imminent death. His martyrdom is regarded as the first martyrdom in the name of Christ in the Apostolic Age. Think about that: it wasn’t an Apostle, it wasn’t even a Jew, but a Hellenist deacon. A Hellenist was a gentile convert to Judaism, and usually considered as a second-class Jew, I believe.
Two full chapters in the Bible are given almost entirely to his evangelistic zeal and his defense of the faith.
In Acts 6 he is named a deacon, in order to help take some burdens from the Apostles’ shoulders. He is singled out above the others for being “a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit (Acts 6:5, ESV),” whereas all the others are simply named, including the missionary and evangelist Philip seen in Acts 8.
Later in the chapter we see him working as an miracle worker and apologist. He focused his attention on debating with other Hellenists, “but they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking. (Acts 6:10).” I suppose we can easily infer him as being intelligent, quick-thinking, and extremely passionate about the Truth. Speaking the truth though, as is often the case, has consequences, and he tasted them in full.
Those who disliked Stephen, his message and his ability to powerfully propound his belief, quickly did to him what they and others had done to Jesus. They secretly looked for a way to kill him, by use of false accusations. They accused him of two main things: “This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us (Acts 6:13-14).”
In Acts 7 Stephen proceeds to didactically respond to these two accusations. He thus proves that to defend one’s faith it is not necessary to be quiet, timid, or hopeless of the power of logic and Scripture. Christ was silent to fulfill prophecy, and because if He would’ve defended Himself, He probably would’ve set Himself free by the power of oratory which had brought Him such fame. In contrast, the Christian is to proudly defend his faith, stand firm for the truth, and use any worthy means necessary to show his allegiance to Scripture. Great apologists in history have thus followed Stephen’s courage and use of argument; names such as Justin Martyr, Augustine, Ambrose, Luther, CS Lewis, and Ravi Zacharias come to mind.
When the Sanhedrin put him on trial, he knew the drill, he knew the outcome. Jesus had been falsely tried here, condemned on unfounded charges, and the innocent was murdered by the pressure of public opinion, swayed by the Sanhedrin members no doubt. He was not getting out alive, the charges were too serious and damning.
It is here that Stephen made a choice, a choice to speak the truth to a captive audience, something Paul would mimic various times later in Acts. It was bold, dangerous, yet in a way a very heroic way to go out: guns blazing, arguments flying, and truth proclaimed.
He proceeded to systematically develop his argument against these two charges, part of the charges that were also placed on Christ. He started by defending the Law of Moses, showing how the pius, holier-than-thou Jews of the past rejected and distorted the Law countless times. He showed them the failures of the Jewish nation to listen to God, to accept His prophets, and to listen to the prophecies about the coming Messiah. They didn’t want God’s Messiah, one to take away their sins, they wanted their Messiah, a religious zealot capable of overthrowing Rome. In a sense, they wanted Saul, while God wanted David.
He proceeded to show how the Jews, by putting so much emphasis on an earthly Temple, were lowering God to their standards, housing Him as they would any false god. God’s home is not earth, and it is certainly not in Jerusalem, for heaven is His Throne.
Then Stephen, full of zeal for truth and with the power of the Holy Spirit, openly and viciously condemned the Sanhedrin:
You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it. (Acts 7:51-53)
His fearlessness is unshakable and deep-set, even as he sees his mortal doom looming before him. It is similar today to a gun that is put to one’s forehead for believing in Christ, and yet he scream out “Christ is God”, thus condemning himself to death.
All this said, what is perhaps most admirable in Stephen has not even been mentioned yet: is his joy in the face of certain death.
Now when [the Sanhedrin] heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him. But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep. (Acts 7:54-60)
I wonder what he saw, I wonder what it would look like to us mere humans. I propose that by seeing God’s glory and the face of his Savior, all else became worthless, all else became petty and vain. He saw his eternal future standing before him, his eternal home, his eternal Savior. This world is not enough. This world is not the end but the beginning. He proudly proclaimed his joy, he openly expressed his rapturous elation. What a privilege to be loved by such a Father, to even die for His glory!
A tumult arose in the city that day, crowds gathered to see the murder of a criminal, and the greatest religious leaders of Israel were enraged and absolutely furious. They would humiliate, dishonor, and kill this man. They would try and erase his name from the record books, they would turn his body into food for the wild animals. Heavy rocks flew upon Stephen that day, crashing down upon his body, as he fell to his knees. Yet it was not sorrow, pain, or even desperation that drove him there, it was joy. He was privileged to be perhaps the first Church Age Christian in all of history to enter the Throne of God and live in everlasting peace by the grace of his Savior. He was writing history and creating legend, if you will; the image to be stored in the minds of countless of the persecuted saints throughout coming ages. It is undeniable that the power of the Holy Spirit which resided in Stephen as it does in us, enabled him to do such a great feat in God’s name, for to Him belongs all the glory. The power has not changed, therefore such a feat is repeatable, and is repeated on a regular, even daily basis around the world.
Stephen set the standard, teaching with actions, not words. He is worthy of honor in God’s Book, he is worthy of recognition, esteem, and even imitation. May we, as him, realize that this world is not enough, that this place is not our home. The faster the end comes, the faster our joy can be fulfilled and our long-awaited hope can become palpable reality. Just as CS Lewis once said, “…we were made for another world.”
Lord, would You count us worthy to share in such a cause as Stephen’s? Would You empower us to bring more “sons into glory”, at whatever cost? Would we be able to look into the face of death, and see beyond it to Your glorious home?
Father, open our eyes, for this world so desires to blind us and quiet us. Open our eyes, increase our faith, as you did with Stephen then, that we may see our true destiny: to be with You eternally in Your beautiful and glorious home.