Today’s read of Acts 6:8-7:60 tells the story of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Stephen is one of the seven men chosen by the apostles to serve. As the church grew, one of their priorities was taking care of the physical needs of the body, including a daily distribution of food to widows and others in need. In Acts 4 we learned that these early believers truly lived in community, even selling their possessions so that every need was met. This practice apparently grew large enough to need a team of men to manage it all.
Stephen is described as a man “full of faith and the Holy Spirit” and “full of grace and power.” God was using him to perform signs and miracles attesting to the truth of the message of Jesus, a message which he was also gifted and called to preach. His messages were bold, and he caught the attention of a group of Hellenistic Jews (Jews who had adopted the Greek language and culture). They took offense at him, publicly arguing with him, but they were “unable to cope with the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking.” Frustrated and angry, they do to him just what the Pharisees and the Sanhedrin had done to Jesus. They pay off false witnesses and accuse him of blasphemy, bringing him before the Council (Sanhedrin) to answer for the charges.
Instead of defending himself and denying that he is a blasphemer, Stephen presents a lengthy speech on Israel’s history. Beginning with Abraham’s call to leave his country, he highlights how God brought Israel into existence, their failures of idol worship in the wilderness, and the building of the temple (at which point he reminds them from the scriptures that God does not dwell in houses built by human hands). He ends with a scathing rebuke, accusing the current religious leaders as being no better than their ancestors who persecuted and killed the prophets; for they have betrayed and murdered the One who was promised, Jesus, the Son of God.
His listeners are “cut to the quick” (his convicting message has found its mark in their unrepentant hearts), and they are angry. At this point, something amazing happens. God draws back the curtain of heaven and Stephen sees the glory of God, and Jesus, standing on His right hand. In awe, he describes what he is seeing. This is the final straw, and as a group, they drive him out of the city where they stone him to death. Just like Jesus, Stephen calls out to the Lord to receive his spirit and prays that his murderers are not charged with his death.
Just one takeaway. We can’t read this story without asking ourselves what would we do in Stephen’s place? If the day comes when you must choose between denying Christ or dying, what will you do? We are so blessed in America to still have the freedom to live openly and boldly as a Christ-follower if we’re brave enough to stand against the cultural tide that has already turned against us.
Jesus told us that persecution will come.
Will we be ready when it comes to us?