Biblical Last Words: Stephen Forgives

Biblical Last Words: Stephen Forgives

Biblical Last Words: Stephen Forgives.

“And Stephen told them, ‘Look, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing in the place of honor at God’s right hand!’ As they stoned him, Stephen prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ He fell to his knees, shouting, ‘Lord, don’t charge them with this sin!’ And with that, he died.”  (Acts 7:56, 59, 60).

There is a dramatic prelude to Stephen’s ministry and heroism. The Holy Spirit had descended in Jerusalem at Pentecost, and the early Christian church grew exponentially as a result. All of  a sudden the Christian community developed into a rather large contingent of believers. The community morphed into something that needed to be managed. This huge spiritual revival meant that the community was no longer ad hoc, come what may. What with all the preaching, teaching, worshiping, living together, and caring for the poor in their midst, the Apostles were overwhelmed. There soon came a complaint from the Greek-speaking Jews. They stated that their widows were being ignored in the food distribution. The Hebrew-speaking Jews were for some reason getting first priority. This wasn’t fair and the problem needed to be addressed.

The original Twelve, the leaders of the community, agreed that this indeed needed to be fixed. But they believed they were called to keep their preaching, teaching and prayer ministry, and not get caught up in the daily details of feeding the poor. So they came up with a solution. Let us choose seven men, they said, believers who have solid reputations, were full of the wisdom of God, and demonstrated a life full of the Holy Spirit. These men can manage this whole food distribution project, and then we can concentrate on what we are called to do in the community. So they carefully selected seven Greek-speaking Jews to manage the food for the poor. They are acknowledged as spiritual leaders, too, so they could no doubt minister to the community in other ways as well. One of the seven leaders chosen was Stephen, a man who was full of the Spirit of Jesus, and walked with great power, faith and grace. Stephen’s ministry was much wider than food distribution, though. He evidently performed many miracles among the Christians, what the early Christians called signs and wonders. Judging from his extended speech to the Jewish High Council (Acts 7), Stephen was also a biblical historian and a budding theologian.

Stephen found himself standing in front of the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem because there were false testimonies about Stephen circulating amongst the scribes and scholars and priests. They demanded that Stephen give an account of these charges, and provide answers to the witnesses against him. The High Council wanted Stephen to defend himself. So Stephen gave the longest sermon in the Book of Acts, and it wasn’t even a self-defense. Stephen decided to assertively highlight the very spotty spiritual history of Israel. He summarized Israel’s relationship with God, starting with Abraham and the Patriarchs, continuing with Moses and the Exodus, and he offered observations about the wilderness events and the Tabernacle. Stephen made it clear that believers worshiped God long before there was a Tabernacle or a Temple. God is not limited by a building, He is not contained in one structure like the Temple. Stephen underlined the obvious resistance of Israel to things of God, their historical rebellion to following Him and His ways. And Jesus’ death was just another example of Israel’s rejection of God. Stephen must have realized how the Council would react, but he nonetheless called the Jews stubborn, stiff-necked, and uncircumcised in heart! Stephen made the claim in his speech that the Jews betrayed the Just One, the long-awaited Messiah.

Well, of course, these were fighting words. Stephen’s speech was like signing his own death certificate. The Council was furious at the apparent disrespect, disloyalty, and blasphemy. The Council turned into a lynch mob as they dragged Stephen outside the city walls, without a trial, and proceeded to stone Stephen to death. According to Mosaic Law, the punishment for blasphemy was stoning (Lev. 24:16). Stephen’s martyrdom was the first in the Christian community, and it was the beginning of the first widespread persecution of the Christian Church. But as Tertullian once said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” As the Christians escaped persecution by fleeing to areas distant from Jerusalem, the believers took that opportunity to spread the Faith and start new churches all over that part of the world.

While Stephen was being stoned by the mob, he had a vision in which he saw the majesty and splendor of God, with Jesus standing at God’s right hand. Stephen witnessed the glorified Jesus welcoming him into His presence. This vision was the ultimate blasphemy, of course, and the stoning continued. As he lay sprawled on the ground and stones were rained upon him, Stephen echoed the words of Jesus on the cross. Stephen entrusted his spirit into the hands of Christ, which itself is a quote from Psalms 31:5. And then in his dying breaths he shouted his last request. Please God, forgive them, forgive all those who are stoning him. The dying moments of Stephen were exactly parallel to those of his Savior, Jesus Christ. Stephen was indeed full of the Holy Spirit, right to the end.

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