“When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. 55 But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” 57 At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, 58 dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep.” Acts 7.54-60
We often talk about the sacrifices we make living a Christ-centered life. For those of us in countries without much persecution, the sacrifice is somewhat hard to pin down. We give up known and unknown sins, sometimes people ridicule us for choosing the way of purity and holiness. Maybe an activist will call us out on social media for being too ”conservative” or evangelical. But for the most part, at least where I live, Christians are confident and share a majority of the population. But for Stephen, and for our brothers and sisters in persecuted nations, the consequences for following Jesus can be harsh.
As you know, Stephen was the first ordained deacon in the church. He was a chief servant, full of the Holy Spirit and faith. Not only was he serving the poor and administrating the Gospel, he was also in gospel/preaching ministry. In this previous discourse with the Jewish religious leaders he is giving testimony (a sermon) about who Christ is and what he has done and he pays the price for his boldness.
This passage captures the death of Stephen. The text tells us that ”he fell asleep,” but we read that to mean, he died and the Lord took him into his care, he fell asleep unto death. Yet even in the midst of his persecution, when he was being stoned to death by rocks, he was still full of the Holy Spirit and his face was like that of an angel. He was even given a vision for his comfort of heaven and the ”Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” Stephen saw Jesus in his vision just before God received him into his care. They dragged him out of the city and there they stoned him. And while he was dying he prayed, ”Lord, Jesus receive my spirit.” And, ”Lord, do not hold this sin again them.” Unbelievable faith!
Imagine the kind of strength Stephen had to stand up in the face of persecution. To not recount his faith, to not lessen his hold on his commitment to the Lord. He, like Jesus, could have renounced God and died. But he remained faithful even asking the Lord to forgiven his accusers.
And speaking of accusers, this is our first glimpse at Saul, later Paul, who was a Christ-killer but would be captured by Jesus to do the work of the Gospel all across the Ancient Near East and to become the greatest evangelist the world has known (but that’s a story for another time!)
“O Lord God, thank you for the cross. Thank you that the story of the Gospel is God’s strength working through human frailty. You make us brave! You make us strong. Even when we are sucked into sin, and turn away, you remind us each day of your goodness of grace. Thank you for Stephen’s witness to the word and to the word. Come Holy Spirit, fill me with your power. Forgive me of my sins. Use me for your Kingdom and for your love. For you are good and your love endures forever.” Amen