They will make you outcasts from the synagogue, but an hour is coming for everyone who kills you to think that he is offering service to God. – John 16:2
Let’s rewind now to the first martyr. Acts 6-7 records the account of Stephen. Now the Book of the Acts of the Apostles was written by Luke, the doctor companion of Paul and also the writer of the Gospel that bears his name. He was a trained researcher, and so he knew how to write a judicious historical account (which I find amazing that so many secular scholars ignore when they call into question the Gospel’s history). This witness is trustworthy.
Anyways, when we reads Stephen’s story in Acts, we see that Stephen’s story parallels Jesus’ crucifixion story in the Gospel of Luke. Those that would insist that the cross is not a path we must take, that it is only something God did for us and not something we do as well, have to contend with the fact that Luke intended to show Stephen living out the cross of Christ. Luke intends for us to take up that cross, imitating Christ.
Stephen was chosen by the 12 disciples along with 6 others to be administrators for the growing movement of the Way, (that is one of the names Christianity was called originally). Stephen was known to be a person of outstanding character: “full of faith and spirit,” Luke tells us.
Stephen was known to even perform miraculous signs, gifts of the Spirit working in him just as it did with Jesus. And just like Jesus, when the Pharisees took notice they were offended. They were angry. They felt their power slipping away by a bunch of rag-tag followers of the so-called messiah, Jesus, whom they arranged his execution by deceptive means. But now, his followers were claiming that he rose from the grave. Blasphemous non-sense it was to their darkened minds. Dangerous blasphemous non-sense.
So they arrested Stephen for blasphemy, just like what they did to Jesus. Stephen was brought before the court of the religious teachers, the ones who had Jesus murdered. Stephen, it says, had the Holy Spirit move within him, and he gave a long speech defending how Jesus fulfills everything in the Old Testament.
As he concluded, Stephen turned to call the religious teachers on their corruption: “Do you even realize that you killed the messiah your religious books prophesy about? You obsess about the law, but don’t even realize you killed the one that came as the law-giver! You have the law, but you are so blind you don’t even know it when you are disobeying it completely.”
As one can expect, a counsel of the most rich, powerful personalities of religion did not take that well. Self-righteous religious types have a hard time being told they are the ones who are actually the ones doing the sinning.
So, the counsel dragged Stephen into the streets, growling in rage. They cornered him and picked up stones. The text says, that Stephen looked up and remarked that he saw the heaven’s open to greet him (like a Jesus’ baptism). He could see Jesus, standing with the Father, and he knew he was going home.
Before they threw the stones, Stephen prayed two things, “Lord, receive me spirit,” echoing Jesus’ words, “In your hands I commend my spirit.” And he prayed, “Father, do not hold their sin against them,” again, restating Jesus’ own words, “Father forgive them, they know not what they do.” As Jesus did, so did he.
If someone came against you to kill you, would your first thought be, “Father, forgive them for what they are doing?”
Luke wrote this narrative showing that the cross is something we are to take up. The cross is the ultimate act of obedience to Jesus’ way. It is the ultimate consequence when we live it truthfully to a world that does not want to hear truth. It is also a way that refuses to hold anger and hate.
Stephen’s act of witness was more than a tragedy. It effected change in his persecutors. We know that this love is persuasive in the face of terrible hate: Paul, originally called Saul, was one of the people throwing the stones. As he tells us, he was a zealous Pharisees, hell-bent on eradicating the Jesus heresy. Paul’s heart was hard and violent and bigoted. Some people say that you cannot reason with people like that. However, God is shows that the most awesome power in the world to undo evil is not force, not violence, not even miracles, but sacrificial love in the name of Jesus. Jesus used Stephen’s testimony and then encountered Paul, who soon after encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus; “Paul, why are yo persecuting me?”
Tertullian once said that “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” The seed of Stephen’s martyrdom flowered with Christ the ever-persisten gardener, transforming Paul.
We live in a world that treats Christians with increasing animosity. Do Christians need to ban together to impose our morals in public legislature? Do we need guns and bombs to suppress Islamic persecution of Christians?
Or do we need to commit ourselves to the way of the cross: Cannot the power of Christ turn hearts? Just as it was withs the man that murdered Stephen, making him the greatest apostle of the Christian faith, so it may be today.
Father, thank you for the testimony of Stephen, how his life and death point back to our Lord. May we always be ready to give account of the hope within us as he was, always ready to speak truth, even when unpopular. Also, fill our hearts with peace in the face of hate. You forgave us, so may we forgive those who wrong us. We commend to you our spirits today. Always uphold us in your hands as you did Stephen.