Open Your Bible
Acts 7:1-60, Genesis 15:13-14, Deuteronomy 18:15
The cabin lights were dim when the airplane began to dip and jerk. I was flying home from visiting my sister, who at the time lived in Hawaii, and I was aware that we were flying over the vast Pacific Ocean. The plane lurched again, sending my stomach to my throat. Seated between two strangers, I grabbed the armrests with a white knuckle grip, closed my eyes, and prayed. I wish I could say that I had profound thoughts, or a hopeful glimpse of eternity. But all I could think was, I don’t want to die between these two strangers.
In Acts 7, we witness one of the first displays of murderous violence against Christ’s Church. Stephen had been chosen to care for the growing number of new believers—in particular, the community’s widows—and so powerful was his ministry, a group of Jewish leaders within the community rose up in opposition, fearing their loss of influence. There was no doubt about their intentions. Acts 6:12 says they “dragged him off” (HCSB), and brought him to the Sanhedrin. Stephen must have recognized the pattern. It is what had happened to Jesus before a crowd yelled, “Crucify him!”
What would your last words be? Would you ask the murderous crowd for mercy? Would you defend yourself? Stephen does neither. Instead, he launches into an Old Testament exegesis worthy of the world’s best seminary. Throughout history, he says, Israelites have rejected the leaders and prophets God sent to them. Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery. Moses was rejected by his Hebrew neighbors. Having just escaped Egypt, the Israelites still resist God in the desert, begging Aaron to build them a calf to worship. Time and time again, God’s people cut off His outstretched arm. “You stiff-necked people with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are always resisting the Holy Spirit” (Acts 7:51).
He isn’t able to tell the part of the story that we long to hear. He can’t explain the grace that Jesus offers to all of us stiff-necked resisters, because the crowd can’t stand it anymore. Imagine the rush of terror they drag him outside of the city. Coats are thrown down, rocks are picked up. And there goes the first stone. Dust flies up, and now, he is crying out. But he doesn’t call down judgment. He begs God to forgive.
Stephen is the Church’s first martyr. His life was marked by joy, service, and profound suffering. His last words were not about himself, or the injustice of his end. His last thoughts were of his Savior, and of the forgiveness available to all, through Christ’s mercy.