Read Acts 7
ALSO IN SCRIPTURE
“None of them could stand against the wisdom and the Spirit with which Stephen spoke.” (Acts 6:10, NLT)
When we think of God’s people, we tend to think one of two things. We might think of the Israelites who were God’s “chosen people”, or we might think of specific characters in the Bible. Either way, we tend to idealize the people we are thinking about. For instance, we may think that God’s people are super faithful, holy, perform miracles and live wholly devout and righteous lives. Unfortunately, this idealism enables us to distance ourselves from being God’s people, because we feel that we fall short of those ideals. As such, I have decided to write a devotion series on specific characters in the Bible in order to show you how much these Biblical people are truly like us, and how much we are truly called to be God’s people.
Part 239: Stephen. When it comes to Stephen, not a lot is known about him prior to becoming a Christian. One can assume he was Jewish because, unlike “Nicholas of Antioch”, a foreign location was not added to his name. Aside from that, all we have to go on is what is found in Acts 6-7.
We first learn of Stephen in Acts 6, where he was described by Luke as “a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit” (v. 5) and “a man full of God’s grace and power.” He was one of the seven deacons that the Apostles appointed to judiciously take care of the distribution of food to the church. Thus, Stephen was one of the seven people ensuring that everyone would get food and not be discriminated against.
At some point a group of Diaspora Jewish freedmen, or freed slaves, got into a debate with Stephen. It is not certain where this happened; however, the result of the debate did not end well for Stephen. According to Luke, he evidently won the debate, which further enraged these Hellenistic Jews. Luke says that they persuaded some men to lie about overhearing Stephen blaspheme against Moses and God. To “blaspheme against Moses”, more than likely, meant to blaspheme against God’s Law or Torah, which was given from God to the Israelites through Moses.
Thus, as a result of that charge, Stephen was arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin to be tried for blasphemy. Of course, the punishment for blasphemy was death by stoning. Thus, Stephen’s life was very much in jeopardy. These were serious charges, as was the fact that Stephen was following Jesus, whose death the Sanhedrin was partially responsible for.
Before we go further, I want to clear something up. I have seen Stephen’s words used by ultra-conservative Christians as a way of perpetrating anti-semitism. I have also seen ultra-progressive Christians call Stephen’s speech as the most antisemitic speech in the Bible. Both sides are wrong. Stephen was not an antisemite, as he was Jewish. He also was not speaking out against ALL JEWS, but rather against the Jewish Religious Leadership…aka the Sanhedrin! That context matters and needs to be acknowledged.
Stephen, knowing the jeopardy he was in, did indeed give an impassioned speech that brought his audience on a journey through Jewish history. He honored Moses and the prophets in his speech, but he also called out the pattern of resistance and persecution that were inflicted on the prophets by the religious establishment and Jewish leadership. In doing this, he severely angered the members of the Sanhedrin and, consequently, was stoned to death for blasphemy. His last words as he died were, “Lord, don’t charge them with this sin.” In other words, his last words were a prayer for forgiveness for those who were killing him.
In the midst of adversity, Stephen’s love for Jesus Christ took over and he did not let fear or consequence stand in his way of preaching the Good News. It cost him his life; however, his witness (martyr is Greek for witness) has endured the last 2,000 years. As people of God, we are being called to have Stephen’s passion for Christ. We are being called to stand up for the truth and to preach the Good News to all people everywhere, even if that means facing the consequences for doing so. There are different ways in which we are each called to be faithful witnesses. I hope you will reflect on how Christ is calling you to be his witness in your community.
THOUGHT OF THE DAY
“The tyrant dies and his rule is over, the martyr dies and his rule begins.” – Søren Kierkegaard
Lord, help me be as faithful a witness as Stephen so that, through me, others may see the glory of your salvation offered freely to them. Amen.