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Acts 7:55-60

These verses in Acts describe the death of the first martyr: Stephen.

According to Acts 6:8, Stephen was “a man full of God’s grace and power” and he “performed great wonders and signs among the people.” This seems like the kind of man who would rise to the top of the religious power structures, right? Wrong.

According to Robert W. Wall’s commentary, Luke’s reference to the “Synagogue of the Freedmen” seems to represent a Hellenistic Jewish faction which opposed the Hellenistic Christian converts just as the Hebraic Sanhedrin opposed the Twelve.[1] Just as Peter and John ran into trouble with the Sanhedrin, so Stephen aroused opposition among the “Synagogue of the Freedmen.” This group began to argue against Stephen, but “they could not stand up against the wisdom the Spirit gave him as he spoke” (6:10).

First century Jews in Jerusalem were living under the heavy hand of Roman rule. Hebraic Jews, Hellenistic Jews—all subject to the whims of Caesar, the taxes of Caesar, the constant threat of conscription into Caesar’s army. One might think that under such oppressive rule, the presence of someone performing great signs and wonders and able to argue persuasively would be accepted with eager welcome into leadership. Surely their thoughts would be something like, “Might this man be a visionary leader who could bring relief to our suffering and freedom from Roman oppression?”

Instead, though, it was the very people most like Stephen who hated him the most. Hellenistic Jews opposed this Hellenistic convert, falsely accused him, and stirred up the Jewish leaders against him.

I find this eerily parallel to what I see across the North American church today.[2] We watch with some interest the political and theological battles taking place among the leaders of other denominations, but we save our own particular hatred for the leaders who oppose us in our own denomination.

And just as citizens of the Roman Empire probably paid very little attention to what was happening across the city among the Jews, so our secular neighbors care very little about what happens at this or that general assembly or conference.

How is it that again and again we, the people of God, find ourselves with stone in hand ready to destroy the most prophetic, most Spirit-filled, and even the wisest among us? What makes us feel such vitriol and hatred towards our closest Christian brothers and sister? Why do we lament the irrelevancy of the church in a changing world and yet save our greatest anger not for the forces that are destroying those around us (such as bitterness, addiction, abuse, trauma, depression, suicide) but instead are most angry at the ones who speak the truth of God in ways that make us uncomfortable or foolish-looking?

The story of Stephen is a haunting reminder to the church of the long tradition of religious leaders who prefer not to have God involved. We must continually humble ourselves before God when confronted with people whose theology challenges us but whose lives bear witnesses to the work of the Spirit. We must be willing to ask, “Could we be wrong?” Otherwise, we–especially those of us in positions of power–all too easily find ourselves standing over the stoning of yet another faithful witness to God’s power.

On the other side of this story is the call to faithfulness.

If we think that the powerful manifestation of the Holy Spirit in our lives and ministry will lead us to positions of greater power and influence, Stephen’s story serves as a caution. Presumably the other men chosen by the apostles to assist in the daily distribution of food were also filled with the Holy Spirit, but Stephen stood out.

The more God’s presence in our lives and ministry makes us stand out, the more likely we are to encounter opposition—even from within the church.

This passage serves as a warning to the church—to be careful that we not take our stand against God’s Spirit-filled saints, but against “the schemes of the devil.” As Paul wrote in Ephesians, “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces in the heavenly realms” (6:12).

Second, this passage serves as a vivid fulfillment of Jesus’ words in the Gospel of Matthew: “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you” (5:11-12). As faithful servants of the Gospel, we would be foolish to expect anything else. We must be willing to follow the path to the cross, laying down any hope of power, influence, or position as well as the chance to avenge our suffering. We must be prepared to truly love our enemies to the very end.

But “our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us” (Romans 8:18). It wasn’t until Stephen stood before a room full of angry men who hated him with all of their beings that he had this wonderful view of heaven. He didn’t see the eyes flashing or nostrils flaring, fists clinched, faces turning red with anger; instead he saw “the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God” (v. 55). When our faithfulness leads us to the greatest opposition, we encounter the greatest blessings of our heavenly Father. In fact, it may be safe to say that it is impossible to see God without first coming face to face with the depths of humanity.

Church, may we be humble, faithful servants of the most high God, and as we come face to face with those who would oppose us, may we be faithful witnesses, looking up to the heavens, open to reveal the glory of God. [1] Robert E. Wall, “The Acts of the Apostles,” vol. X of the New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 121. [2] I by no means intend to minimize the suffering of Christians who experience persecution for their faith around the world, for whom conversion means great risk to their lives. But in the North American context, all too often, the fear of future persecution by a secular society overshadows the present hatred we feel towards and receive from our fellow Christians.