So what is it, that the Father might be saying to us at a time such as this? It seems to me that it is as simple and as profound as a story of glory—the triumphant glory of God that has not been and will never be, extinguished by the darkness!
Imagine that you’re present—in this story recorded for us in the book of Acts 6-7. You are there living the journey with Stephen—working alongside him, helping him.
How exciting it was to be present that day when he was chosen by the community of Jesus-followers to serve them in the distribution of food to the widows of the Greek and Hebrew speaking believers? It was like you could feel the atmosphere was charged with the holiness and passion of God!
You had heard that Stephen had a reputation for being ‘a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit’. (Acts 6:5) and now you realised that Stephen was not just serving food to the people in need. Important though the task is, you have been recognising that it is never all about that. It is about relationship. Whenever authentic community is allowed to exist and is practised, God’s goodness and grace and mercy and compassion are on display for all to see!
Whenever the Word of God speaks, you have been learning that we do well to listen. But not just to listen because it is when we believe God and put what we have heard into action that it becomes life… And life charged and empowered by the power of the Holy Spirit changes everything!
You saw—sometimes through your tears—that through Stephen’s life in-action, God had gifts to give to the ‘little ones’ who are so easily forgotten—marginalised by a world locked in an insane struggle for power.
Now of course you remember… Jesus always honoured the people who the world rejected. He only did what he saw the Father doing! He never treated the vulnerable—the ‘lepers’ of society, the ‘invisible’ people like they were victims and expendable— people to sweep out of his way.
Their needs were (are) opportunities… opportunities for God to reveal his glory, his majesty, his goodness and his eternal loving-kindness to the world who was (is) watching.
You stood with Stephen as he along with his colleagues was prayed for and commissioned by the twelve apostles. Then in the days to come, you watched as a principle was displayed for all to see and understand: in the hands of the author of our lives, a job description becomes something infinitely more than anything imagined, planned or authored by man alone.
You watched in amazement as Stephen—full of God’s grace and power—performed amazing miracles and signs among the people. You had learned from history so you were not really surprised that he attracted opposition. It came this time, in the form of a group of Jews from a local Synagogue. But do you know what the worst thing was? These men couldn’t stand against the wisdom and the Spirit with which Stephen spoke so they persuaded others to tell lies about him.
It was awful! Of course, the people always did become enraged in an instant whenever they imagined the law of Moses and the holy Temple were being blasphemed but the speed with which you saw the religious leaders became involved was incredible.
That day, you heard truth! The very words of Jesus (yes, you heard him speak them with your own ears) were twisted and used with malicious intent against Stephen. You sensed evil at work that day—invisibly and visibly—bent on stealing, killing and destroying…
But the wonder of what happened next! You watched in awe when you saw Stephen’s face became as bright as an angel’s with the glory of God shining upon him, within him, all around him. Everyone just stared at him in amazement, their mouths wide open!
It was then that the priest in-charge spoke. You turned, this time to stare at him as he arrogantly asked Stephen if the accusations levelled against him were true! The way he asked made you wonder if he had already made up his mind about the matter.
The way Stephen replied was amazing and reminded you of the words Jesus said about a time of great persecution ahead. He said, “You will be dragged into synagogues and prisons, and you will stand trial before kings and governors because you are my followers. But this will be your opportunity to tell them about me. So don’t worry in advance about how to answer the charges against you, for I will give you the right words and such wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to reply or refute you!” (Luke 21:12-15 NLT)
It looked to you like the religious leaders were pleased with what Stephen was saying… in fact it was like listening to the lesson for the day in the Synagogue. But all that changed when he pointed out to them that they were ‘heathen’ at heart and deaf to the truth! And then he asked if they were going to forever resist the Holy Spirit—which was what their ancestors did!
Oh! He really gave it to them! The Truth would not be silenced! He said that their ancestors persecuted every one of the prophets that God sent to them but not only that, they even killed the ones who predicted the coming of the Righteous One, the Messiah. He even told them that the Most High doesn’t live in temples made by human hands! After all, who amongst men could build God a resting place when heaven is his throne and earth is his footstool!
You wondered… is it possible that the Temple and the traditions of the law of Moses had tragically somehow become a form of idolatry reinforced time and time again? Had this idolatry hardened—even encapsulated—their hearts to the Father of our beloved Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ?
It seemed like the Father was giving these people whom he loved so much, another opportunity to repent of their sins and turn to Jesus in faith. But they would have none of it that day. The power of the ‘story’ was too strong in them and it was like they served it. Anyone perceived as a threat to their story was being treated as ‘the enemy’. They chose that moment, to become infuriated by Stephen’s accusation. They could have chosen to turn to God—truly remorseful and repentant. They had a choice but sadly, you recognised, they had made this choice so often that it was like it now owned them.
You watched with awestruck wonder as Stephen—full of the Holy Spirit—gazed unwavering into heaven and saw the glory of God! He saw Jesus standing in the place of honour at God’s right hand. He testified to what he saw even in that moment, “Look, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing in the place of honour at God’s right hand!” (Acts 7:55-56)
The speed and violence with which the engaged religious leaders grabbed Stephen was awful and terrifying! You watched with horror when men took up one stone after another and with a deadly force borne out of self-righteous fury, struck him again and again…
With tears streaming down your face, you watched as Stephen—innocent of the charges brought against him—prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Falling to his knees, he shouted, “Lord, don’t charge them with this sin!” (Acts 7:59-60)
And you remembered Jesus…
Oh… and the triumphant glory light of God? One of the witnesses who stood in agreement to the killing of Stephen, was a young man known as Saul who was soon to find himself in the very centre of the focus of that same glory!
Oh merciful and great I AM! Keep us from the folly of resisting your Holy Spirit! Help us to more fully surrender (by faith with joy and thanksgiving) to Jesus and experience true and lasting freedom to live in unfettered abandonment to your ways and to your will… No matter the cost of the opposition that we will attract! For Jesus sake! For your glory!
(References: This story was taken from the Bible book of Acts chapters 6-7 NLT.)