Their sound has gone out into all lands, and their message to the ends of the world. Psalm 19:4
We give you thanks, O Lord of glory, for the example of the first martyr Stephen, who looked up to heaven and prayed for his persecutors to your Son Jesus Christ, who stands at your right hand: where he lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.
Psalter: Psalm 28, 30
Lessons: 2 Chronicles 24:17-22, Acts 6:1-7:60
It is no wonder the disciples in the book of Acts were, at one point, called by their detractors, “those who have turned the world upside down.” The message they proclaimed was nothing if not paradoxical. The way to salvation—to life, life, and more life—was through no other name but the name of Jesus of Nazareth, a man condemned by the authorities as a criminal and put to death on a cross. How more thoroughly upside down can you get than to say that life, true life, abundant life, comes forth from one man’s most disgraceful and humiliating death? Who could possibly believe something as crazy as that?
However, as Luke says, many were believing, including some of the priests. The number of disciples was increasing daily at a rapid rate, so much so that the first controversy in church history arose. Quite predictably, it involved food. The fire of Pentecost had not yet gone out, but the language barrier was already trying to creep back in and hinder the church’s mission. Even at this early date, the church included Jewish believers from all parts of the world. Not only were there Aramaic-speaking Jews from Jerusalem, but also Greek-speaking Jews from the Diaspora, known as Hellenists. It was not uncommon for Jewish women living among the Diaspora to immigrate to Jerusalem following the death of their husbands. There were many such widows among the early believers. But the Hellenists complained that their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food. So, the Apostles called everyone together and said, “Look, this is a needless controversy. We have more important things to do than wait on tables.” Exercising their authority with wisdom and humility, they delegated this responsibility to seven men, chosen from among the people, all of whom were filled with the Spirit and endowed with the gifts necessary for serving others.
This might seem like a minor squabble, a tiny brush fire quickly extinguished by the wise decision of the Apostles. God had a purpose, however, even in so seemingly insignificant an incident. For out of this episode arose one of the most gifted and articulate leaders of the early church; a man who demonstrated both in his life and in his death what it truly means to follow the example of Christ.
Naturalists might try to explain away the giftedness of Stephen. They might say he was just a better debater than his detractors. But Stephen was a man so filled with the Holy Spirit that signs and wonders accompanied his words. He spoke the truth because the Holy Spirit spoke through him, and people heard and believed. This, however, upset a lot of people. The livelihood of Stephen’s opponents depended on the perpetuation of a lie. They were intimidated by Stephen and felt threatened by his words and the signs which accompanied them. He spoke the truth so convincingly, yet with such genuine humility, that his opponents could not stand it.
Unable to withstand Stephen’s proclamation of the truth, his opponents trumped up a bunch of lies about him and drug him before the council. But that only gave Stephen another opportunity to preach the Word. He rehearsed the whole history of Israel, reminding the people of their heritage and of their hope for a promised Deliverer. He reminded them of the dark side of their history; of their stubbornness, their rejection of the prophets, and finally their rejection of the Righteous One himself. In a ringing indictment, Stephen declared, “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit.” He indicted his accusers with their own words: the words of Abraham, of Moses, of David, and of all the prophets of old; the words they held to be the very Word of God. Had not God himself said of the Israelites that they were a stiff-necked people, stubborn, unwilling to accept the messengers he sent?
This, of course, was not the way to win friends and influence people, but Stephen was not finished. He saw a vision of heaven opened and of Jesus standing at the right hand of God. This was more than Stephen’s enemies could stand. Their rage was not really directed at Stephen, though. They were not angry with him. They were angry with God. Stephen knew this. That is why he was able to face death unafraid, knowing, having already beheld that wondrous vision of Christ in glory, that he would be vindicated and share in the glory. That is also the reason he had pity on those who murdered him, praying with his dying breath that God would not hold their sin against them.
In his death, just as in his life, Stephen modeled the perfect Christ-likeness that Peter spoke of: “When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23).
Good King Wenceslas