I said at the end of last week's blog on chapter 6 that this week would highlight another "turning point" in the still unfolding drama being told in the Acts of the Apostles with the story of Stephen.
The apostles had been proclaiming in earnest that "Jesus is Lord." And, as the numbers being added to the followers of The Way demonstrated, many were in fact changing their hearts and lives by turning from their idols (success, money, possessions, insert your favorite idol here ______ ) to the Lordship of Christ. However, not everyone had ears to hear the truth...especially the religious leaders.
Now, the apostles had routinely met opposition by the priests and religious leaders and had themselves already been arrested (and let go). But with Stephen's arrest things would prove different. Stephen was a newly commissioned minister appointed to help the apostles in ministry "who stood out among the believers for the way God's grace was at work in his life and for his exceptional endowment with divine power."
In other words, Stephen was a threat.
So, false witnesses were brought in and Stephen was arrested to answer to the council for trumped up charges of blasphemy. When asked to respond, Stephen proceeded to give the longest speech yet recorded in Acts (verses 2-53) which he used to outline Israel's long history of idolatry and disobedience against God. Ultimately, Stephen concludes his great testimony with a countercharge that the religious council is itself guilty of the accusations being leveled against him. As you might imagine, this did not sit well with the council...at all.
Herein lies the turning point. The opposition escalates to violence not yet seen by the followers of The Way and here's how it happened:
"Once the council members heard these words, they were enraged and began to grind their teeth at Stephen. But Stephen, enabled by the Holy Spirit, stared into heaven and saw God’s majesty and Jesus standing at God’s right side. He exclaimed, 'Look! I can see heaven on display and the Human One standing at God’s right side!' At this, they shrieked and covered their ears. Together, they charged at him, threw him out of the city, and began to stone him. The witnesses placed their coats in the care of a young man named Saul. As they battered him with stones, Stephen prayed, 'Lord Jesus, accept my life!' Falling to his knees, he shouted, 'Lord, don’t hold this sin against them!' Then he died." (Acts 7:54-60, CEB)
Stephen, the first Christian martyr. He willingly died for his faith in Jesus Christ, his own last words echoing some of those from Jesus on the cross:
"Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing." (Luke 23:34, CEB)
"Father, into your hands I entrust my life." (Luke 23:46, CEB)
As I read this story, I could not help but think of the Christian persecution happening in Iraq and how people are being forced to choose between denying Christ and converting to Islam, facing a hefty fine that is impossible for them to pay, or to die a martyr's death.
Pray with me:
Pray with me:
God, you know
The plight of people far away
Oppressed by governments and vigilantes
Where Christianity is an unpopular choice.
God, you knew
That the day would come here
When truth-telling would be despised
And siding with the oppressed
Part of the road less traveled.
Have mercy, O God,
Upon persecuted Christians there and here
Who are willing to suffer consequences
For speaking your Name
In word or in deed
In defiance or in advocacy.
Grant courage and strength
To all who would dare
To live their convictions out loud. Amen.
Like Stephen, and those being persecuted still today, may we all have the courage to live our convictions out loud.