Acts chapter 7, verses 54-60 tell us about the first Christian martyr, the first follower of Jesus to die simply because he believed that Jesus was the son of God.
Stephen is one of 7 men, chosen for their integrity to administrate and oversee the distribution of food in the early church in Jerusalem. You see, in the early church, Jews who believed that Jesus was the Messiah, the Son of God, were often rejected and cut off from their families. As a result early believers needed to rely on one another and share all that they had, not only food, but possessions and even their homes. As the early church grew, people like Stephen were chosen to organise and ensure fair distribution of both food and resources.
Stephen is known as a man that is full of the Holy Spirit. At the end of the previous chapter we are told that he was full of God’s grace and power and that he performed amazing miracles and signs among the people. This is not a one-off. Stephen is a man that is continually full of the Holy Spirit.
Then, when people start questioning Stephen about his beliefs, no one can argue against him because of his wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke.
On this particular occasion, men from the synagogue accused Stephen of speaking against the Temple and against the law of Moses. You see, they thought and wanted the Temple and the Law to be exclusively for them.
Stephen’s response, at the beginning of this chapter is to give a speech. He takes his time, reminding his accusers of their history, beginning with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph and going on to talk about Moses and David. In fact he covers many of the situations that we have read about during our 52 Days of Prayers challenge.
In doing this, Stephen is pointing out that God has spoken to people throughout history, in all kinds of places, not just in the Temple.
Finally Stephen reminds them that many of the prophets sent to the nation of Israel were persecuted and killed. Then he points out, to his accusers, that they themselves also killed Jesus, the one that all of the prophets were pointing towards. He has turned the accusation around and Stephen is accusing the synagogue leaders of treating Jesus the same way as the opponents of the prophets.
But Stephen is speaking a truth that the synagogue leaders don’t want to acknowledge. And just as you and I get defensive when someone accuses us of being in the wrong, when we think we know better, it makes them angry. It makes them brutally angry.
Stephen is not intimidated though. He looks to heaven and sees a vision of Jesus standing to the right of God. Throughout scripture Jesus is described as sitting in the place of honour, sitting at the right hand of God, so why, in this vision is Jesus standing?
We don’t know for sure, but at the time, at a trial, witnesses would stand and judges could stand to deliver their verdict. Perhaps the author here is emphasising that it is actually Stephen’s accusers who are on trial and not Stephen himself.
Whatever the reason, it makes the men from the synagogue apoplectic. They rush Stephen and drag him outside of the city walls. They cannot execute him within the city. In fact they shouldn’t kill him at all. They needed to get permission from the Roman governor to perform an execution, but ancient texts tell us that mobs would often stone people to death.
The correct way to stone someone would be to throw the guilty party from a height and then throw large stones at their chest. Witnesses would be the first to throw the stones that were so large they needed two hands to lift them. It is no wonder these men were forced to remove their flowing outer garments. And this is another example of the accusers acting like the accused, you see, usually it was the person being executed who was stripped, not the executioners!
The coats were left with a ‘young man’ called Saul. Saul was probably 25 or 30 years old. He was a student of the scriptures who studied under an eminent Jewish teacher. He was a passionate man who dedicated his life to obeying the Jewish law. Some time later, he met with God while on a journey to persecute the followers of Jesus in Damascus and went on to become one of the most influential Christians of all time, writing several of the books and letters in the New Testament. St Augustine actually puts this very moment and the prayers of Stephen as key to changing Saul’s mindset.
As Stephen is being stoned he prays. ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ and ‘Lord, don’t charge them with this sin!’ Both prayers are words that we know Jesus also said on the cross. It is an example of how much like Jesus, Stephen was.
Stephen wasn’t one of the headline apostles, his gifting was the humble talent of administration, an essential role but a role that rarely brings fame and glory. Stephen performed his role with integrity and a heart for Jesus’ followers. Stephen was the man that God needed to challenge the synagogue leaders and to stir the heart of Saul, who would go on to become one of God’s greatest missionaries.
Whatever your talent is, however humble and insignificant you feel your talents are, if you do them with integrity and a heart for God, you will find yourself being the person that God needs in all kinds of situations.
Stephen knew what he was talking about. He knew Scripture well enough to be able to argue his point clearly. And Stephen was so sure of his belief that Jesus was the Son of God that when the pressure was on, he didn’t back down. He wouldn’t back down even though it cost him his life. He stood firm and challenged those opposed to Jesus. And then, with his last breath Stephen emulated Jesus by offering forgiveness to his executioners and offering his spirit freely to God.
Don’t let anyone tell you that because you are only an administrator, only a young person, only in the background, often overlooked, or taken for granted that you won’t be used by God. It is in our quiet day-to-day living that we develop character and grow to be the people that God needs us to be.
And don’t let anyone tell you that following Jesus is easy. It is not! Neither is it safe! And if you find that following Jesus is easy and safe, you are probably not following Jesus well.
I know that we all want safe and comfortable but God consistently challenges us to step out of our comfort zone, to be different, often to stand opposed to societies norms, always to rely on Him. How far are you willing to go to do this? What are you willing to risk? Stephen risked it all! If God asked you to risk it all, what would you say?