God’s Acts of Providence (31)


Saint Stephen, depicted by Carlo Crivelli

The Way that Refused to Go Away (8)

The Martyrdom of Stephen

Acts 7:51-60

Much of importance occurs between Peter and John’s confrontation with and this, the finale of Stephen’s speech to the Sanhedrin.  The Church’s roots had grown deeper and its branches had spread higher and broader, reaching eagerly for the Son.  The Apostles had survived a second round of persecution, this time ending in a flogging.

And, the Church had grown in organization with the creation of the Office of Deacon. Stephen was one, and likely the leader, of seven men chosen to see that food was equitably distributed to all widows in the church, Grecian and Hebraic alike.  Stephen though was no simple distributor of bread.  He was also a powerful evangelist of Christ, working miracles while fearlessly preaching the Gospel.

It was through Stephen that the main counterattack was launched.  The Apostles had twice been attacked and both times the Sanhedrin had been repulsed.  A softer target was needed, one that was exposed and ready to be exploited.  Stephen was, so it seemed, the perfect choice.  He was not one of the original disciples, nor was he a native of Israel.[1]  False charges of blasphemy were made against him and he was dragged before the Sanhedrin.  It is here that Stephen made an impassioned speech in defense on the gospel and its roots in the Old Testament, with the following fateful finale.

7 51“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. 52Which of the prophets did not your fathers persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, 53you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.”

Stephen’s speech prior to verse 51 appears to be a fairly conventional recitation of Jewish history, starting with Abraham.  There is a reoccurring theme of disobedience; but not obviously beyond the bounds of the underlying Biblical narrative.

However, at verse 51 Stephen suddenly breaks from the story line and launches into this personal, direct attack on the Sanhedrin members.  What provoked this outburst is a mystery.  Perhaps he saw the hardness in his inquisitor’s eyes and realized that there would be no mercy.  Perhaps the Holy Spirit moved him suddenly to confront their evil.

Whatever the reason, Stephen had slapped the Sanhedrin full across the face in broad daylight.  There was no backing down.

54Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth against him. 55But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God; 56and he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God.”

Now insult had been followed by blasphemy.  The end of his speech had been gasoline thrown onto dry brush.  This statement was a lighted torch being thrown on top.

57But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together upon him. 58Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him; and the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul.

Note the passion of this crime.  For a crime it was to execute a man without the proper judicial decision of the Roman authorities.

But take note of the last sentence.  There is this man named Saul who has arrived on the scene.  He stands apart from the passion of the stoning, apparently in a position of some responsibility.  This is the point at which – the Great Apostle – the Slave of Jesus Christ – the poet of Faith, Hope and Love – the man for whom nothing could separate from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord – enters the Biblical record – at the moment of and as an accessory to the creation of the first Christian martyr.

59And as they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60And he knelt down and cried with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.

Stephen like his Lord and God asks at the moment of his murder that the crime not be held against its perpetrators.  What happened at the foot of the Cross, where a hardened, violent man saw how the Savior died?

And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that he thus breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:39)

Yes, Saul in his cold rage, drove forward.  But we are bound to ask if after witnessing how Stephen died, somewhere deep down, buried under the dead weight of Law, pride and ambition a tiny spark was ignited that would not be taken up until hearts by the thousands were burning bright with the love of Christ.

The response of Jesus’ followers to His humiliation and death was astounding.  Even more so was the fact that this riff-raff was able to pick right up where Jesus left off – performing public miracles of healing, preaching, converting multitudes and besting their betters in every encounter.

Though knocked off balance, these men of prestige and power were not so easily defeated.  They regrouped and brought in a new man who had the intellectual firepower and cold-blooded determination to see that this insane cult would finally be ground into powder.  That man was Saul of Tarsus, “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law a Pharisee, as to zeal a persecutor of the church, as to righteousness under the law blameless.” (Philippians 3:5,6).

[1] The name Stephen is Greek and suggests that he was a Hellenist.

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