Stephen continues speaking to the Sanhedrin, where he stands accused of blasphemy, particularly relating to the Law of Moses.
His audience would have been familiar with his entire account. I imagine them nodding in agreement as he faithfully narrates the story of God’s people. Then, without warning, his tone changes and it becomes personal. ‘You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit... And now you have betrayed and murdered him.’
With those few words, Stephen signed his own death warrant and became the first martyr of the early church.
This raises a few questions for me.
Should Stephen have launched such an attack on his accusers? After all, he was doing well in defending his position from the scriptures.
Did he imagine he would “get away with it,” taking a risk in speaking so boldly but thinking God would spare him from the consequences?
Was his death necessary? Surely he’d proved himself an invaluable leader of the deaconate and had so much more potential?
The answers may not be definitive, but what I do know is that God resolutely brings good out of evil. It’s sad to realise that the Sanhedrin and other religious leaders weren’t on God’s side. Their dogmatic adherence to the rules had blinded them to the truth and made them no better than God’s enemies. Stephen, meanwhile, was utterly rooted in his love for God and so filled with the Holy Spirit that he was prepared to go wherever He led him, even to death.
Two scriptures come to mind when I think of Stephen. The first is John 12:24: ‘Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.’ The persecution that followed his death scattered believers all through the regions, opening up opportunities for the gospel far beyond the Jerusalem hub. The apostle Philip went down to Samaria, which was previously known as hostile to Israel. His evangelisation was so successful that Peter and John were drafted in as back-up, baptising the new believers in the Holy Spirit, before returning to Jerusalem, witnessing as they travelled.
Second, I’m reminded of Rev.12:11: ‘They triumphed over him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death.’
Lord, we are challenged by Stephen’s powerful example of faith and his life led by the Holy Spirit. Let us be so dedicated to You that we hold nothing back. Amen