Text: Acts 7:54-60, Acts 8:1-40, 2 Kings 2:11, Isaiah 56:3-5
At this point in the book of Acts, God’s Spirit is moving and empowering the members of the early Church to emulate the gospel-bellowing boldness of Peter. They’re fleshing out the declarative promise of Jesus at the beginning of this New Testament story:
“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”
-Acts 1:8 ESV (emphasis mine)
Although not everyone they witnessed to was so receptive. In his final sermon before the Sanhedrin, Stephen rebuked their stubbornness before God, and he condemned their murdering of Jesus, the Promised Messiah. Being confronted with these truths, the leaders became infuriated, ultimately murdering him as well (Acts 7:51-60).
Stephen, likely a relatively new Christ-follower, was also was one of seven men the apostles had chosen to manage and allocate charitable giving, because there’d been some fussing about how some of the needy folks were getting more financial assistance than others. So they chose a few good men (which many congregations now refer to as deacons) to sort it all out (Acts 6:1-4).
Therefore, it stands to reason that Stephen, being a chosen member of the very first deaconate, was a wise, honorable, well-liked kind of guy. And we know for sure that he was passionate about the gospel because Luke literally describes him as “a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit” (Acts 6:5).
So it’s not hard to imagine the collective shock and grief that rippled through that neophyte church community when he was stoned to death by a militant, anti-Christian mob, simply because of one straightforward sermon about their generational stubborn streak and desperate need for Jesus.
Humanly speaking, it would’ve made sense for the early Church to recoil and then retreat after the tragedy of their dear friend’s gruesome murder. It would make sense if they’d chosen to circle their proverbial wagons and focus on consoling the core group of their fellowship—maybe hire a grief counselor, a crisis manager, and some administrative help to wade through all the insurance and liability issues.
But they didn’t shrink back in fear. They didn’t go underground and become a secret, self-protective, cultish kind of crew. They didn’t allow a horrific homicide to curb their cause. Nope. They did the exact opposite.
On that day the church of Jerusalem began to be persecuted, and all the believers, except the apostles, were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. And some religious people buried Stephen and cried loudly for him. Saul was also trying to destroy the church, going from house to house, dragging out men and women and putting them in jail. And wherever they were scattered, they told people the Good News.
-Acts 7:51-8:4 NCV (emphasis mine)
Their commitment to love others for the sake of Christ didn’t get buried with Stephen—it rose up and got bigger! The enemy’s knock-out punch didn’t send them reeling to the canvas; it propelled them out to share the gospel in every corner of the world.
Here’s the ironic thing about hardship: it tends to have the reverse effect on those of us who’ve put our hope in Jesus rather than in our circumstances. Instead of staying down when we’re walloped, God’s people tend to bounce back with more oomph. In fact, church history proves that opposition often works like Miracle Gro on the Body of Christ. The power of the Holy Spirit enables us to have Rocky-like comebacks, pointing to the undefeatable, redemptive power of the Gospel. We may be down, but we’re never out.
Lisa Harper is a master storyteller with a masters of Theological Studies from Covenant Seminary. She’s lauded as an engaging, hilarious communicator as well as an authentic and substantive Bible teacher. She’s been in vocational ministry for 30 years and has written 15 books and Bible study curriculums but says her greatest accomplishment by far is that of becoming Missy’s (her adopted daughter from Haiti) mama! They live on a hilly farmette south of Nashville, Tennessee, where they enjoy eating copious amounts of chips, queso, and guacamole.