Not every hero of faith dies a martyr
Stephen kept on going until the bitter end. But whose threshold for pain actually goes that far? Not to worry. It doesn’t have to. After all, it is less a martyr’s death than his life that makes him an example. Following are some references from daily life—for daily life.
It is important to eat, but not so much that the word of God should be neglected as a result. This insight is not one gained from a celebration-happy twenty-first-century congregation at work to organise next Sunday’s lunch buffet. Rather, this was the backdrop to a serious dispute some 2,000 years ago: when meals were distributed in the Jerusalem congregation, Greek widows were regularly overlooked, and this did not seem like a coincidence. At first there was only a little discontent, but eventually it led to serious aggravation.
The problem seems easy to resolve. The twelve Apostles institute a kind of table service, and appoint seven men to care for the poor: Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, Nicolas, and Stephen. The Bible does not relate whether the issue of food distribution was ever resolved. What it does tell us, however, is that Philip and Stephen step out of this social-charitable context and emerge as biblically informed proclaimers of the word.
“And Stephen, full of faith and power, did great wonders and signs among the people” (Acts 6: 8) — words of praise for a man whom Christians can certainly emulate.
Stephen was filled with grace. The gospel of Jesus Christ is the message of the grace, mercy, and love of God toward mankind. This grace (Greek: charis), that is, an expression of friendliness, a favour without the expectation of anything in return, is something that Stephen lived in practice. —Christians of the twenty-first century are likewise called upon to be filled with grace. Our testimony should be free of all threats, accusations, judgements, and reproaches. — “Love them,” said Jesus.
Stephen was filled with strength. Scripture relates nothing about the muscles in the Deacon’s legs or arms, but it does speak of his great innate power and authority (Greek: dynamis). Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, out of passion for his mission, he testified of God. — What abilities and powers do Christians engage today? Is the awareness of our childhood in God still always our driving force?
Stephen performed miracles. It was not with card tricks or sleight of hand that Stephen attracted such attention. Owing to their exceptional character, the signs (Greek: teras, terata) he performed were noticed by many, and became deeply engraved in the minds of the people. The Deacon astounded the people. His speech, his faith, and his knowledge of Scripture made a deep impression. People had discussions with him. — Do Christians today still stand out in what are often non-Christian surroundings? Do Christians talk about their faith? Or do they play chameleon and blend in with the crowds, so that no one takes any notice of even the slightest semblance of difference?
Stephen performed great signs. Performing signs with a spiritual intent (Greek: semeion) refers to something greater than the act in itself. The sign is confirmation of the direct connection between God and the person who performs it. — But what are some great signs we can perform in the sense of the gospel? When a person denies himself rather than assert himself, he points to God. When a person stands above the mistakes and sins of his neighbour, when he forgives, reconciles, and loves others—this sets an example in a time when everyone is only looking out for himself, and sees only his own point of view. An incentive for Christians to do the same.
Stephen was among the people. A private chamber is the place for prayer, but when it comes to preaching, it should be among the people. People are the focus of God’s love, of the gospel. — Those who follow Jesus will take an interest in other people—with all their love.
With his superior arguments, Stephen gains the upper hand in his verbal jousting with the members of the Judeo-Hellenic synagogue. On the other hand, his persuasiveness is not well received. His adversaries drag him before the high council, the Sanhedrin, and accuse him of blasphemous words against Moses, and for criticising the temple and the law. False witnesses do their thing.
The man of faith still known as a Deacon to us today defends himself with “Stephen’s speech” (Acts 7). While he is still delivering his arguments, his listeners begin “gnashing at him with their teeth”, as Luke relates. Then his opponents cast him out of the city. Whether due process or lynching, the account leaves us with some doubt about whether this was a fair hearing before the high council. In any case, stones end up flying at him and ultimately deal a fatal blow. He casts one last look into heaven, to God and Jesus, and then speaks his final words, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. Lord, do not charge them with this sin.”
One need not desire a martyr’s death in order to find an example in Stephen: to the core of his being, he was passionate about following Christ. He was not some project leader who occupied himself with the gospel for a few weeks only to disappear from the scene again soon after. He subordinated everything—including his life—to his faith. How far do Christians today go in following this path?
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