You would have to be very young to miss the seismic changes that have come upon our society in the last five years. However you feel about the events that have brought it all about, it is amazing that these last few years could lead us into a new reality. Not to say that some didn’t see it coming. How swiftly the world can become a very different place!
The change that took place in the life of the early church with the stoning of Stephen is significantly more dramatic than what we are seeing in our own day. Literally overnight the landscape for followers of Christ was turned upside down. That gospel message which Stephen preached at his defense before the Jewish council was the shot that provoked a huge violent reaction. It was the boom that triggered the landslide. Stephen’s execution catalyzed the zeal of a community in opposition to Christ which would now be focused upon “men and women” who believed. His message and death emboldened Christ’s opponents.
Bible students who study the New Testament Book of Acts easily see that the author Luke introduces the unconverted Saul in 7:58 in order to prepare us for his very different role in the spread of Christianity. But other significant markers are presented by Luke to grab our attention and frame the unfolding of God’s kingdom purposes. First, Stephen prayed for his executioners in the same way that our Lord prayed during his crucifixion. The unfolding events of Acts are in a significant way the answer to that petition. “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” is the prayer of Christ echoed in the final petition of his servant. It is answered in part with the conversion of one of the most violent men of all scripture. Look again at the stoning of Stephen and the imprisonment of “men and women” (8:3). Read that verse and notice: “Saul was ravaging the church…” Stephen prayed for that man!
Second, one cannot miss the fact that the short sermon and sudden execution of Stephen turned the lives of most Jerusalem believers upside down. Luke says in Acts 8:1 that “they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.” Christians, who did not hear Stephen speak before the council, had to flee immediately because of his message. Were they angry or confused? Did they complain about their discomfort and distress? Not according to Luke. Instead they joined in the witness of the martyred Stephen and “preached the word” as they were driven into Samaria and beyond. Many peoples have fled before the evil of wicked powers, but who as these Christians with boldness and courage?
Third, Luke tells us in 8:2 that “devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him.” So often I attend Christian funerals where the death of a believer is celebrated. Preachers focus upon the happiness of the deceased and their relief from suffering into the great joy of heaven. It is as if we should celebrate their home going instead of mourning their death. That message by itself doesn’t comfort. This text is a signficant exception to modern trends. Luke didn’t have to mention the lamentation over Stephen’s death. He knew that his readers would see the effect of Stephen’s death in the light of the wonderful things that followed. Philip’s own ministry is part of the spread of Christ’s servants to Samaria. With his preaching, many Samaritans were healed, delivered and saved. All because of Stephen’s martyrdom.
Yet I take great comfort in hearing that “devout” men joined in “great lamentation” over Stephen. I know, Jesus said “Let the dead bury the dead.” But these really were “devout men.” Their actions testified to the value of Stephen’s life and ministry. The holy boldness of his gospel preaching and the power of the Holy Spirit in him which affected, healed, and delivered so many would be sorely missed. His death left men in tears! The role of a faithful servant in the church was vacated. Should we not mourn the loss of Christ’s saints among us? I can tell you, as a pastor of many years, the deaths of Christ’s precious people from my own congregation have left a great void. Their absence presses a great longing for the full victory of the gospel upon me. They have joined the church triumphant in heaven but left us wanting their wisdom, strength and presence.
So then, Christ’s prayer for his enemies, his call of faithful servants and the lamentation of devout believers in the midst of opposition, suffering and death tell us that this world is going to change dramatically. The sovereign Lord will not leave the world to its evil course. In the midst of opposition, suffering and death, Christians are going to see the power of a reigning Christ disturb our comforts and press us into faithful witness before all who seek to ravage his church. Weep we will, but as those who know the power of the gospel and expect its full fruition. After all, look what Christ has done through the death of his servant Stephen. More is yet to come!