Acts 7:54-60

When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.

人々はこれを聞いて、はらわたが煮え返る思いで、ステパノに向かって歯ぎしりした。 しかし、聖霊に満たされていたステパノは、天を見つめ、神の栄光と、神の右に立っておられるイエスとを見て、 こう言った。「見なさい。天が開けて、人の子が神の右に立っておられるのが見えます。」 人々は大声で叫びながら、耳をおおい、いっせいにステパノに殺到した。 そして彼を町の外に追い出して、石で打ち殺した。証人たちは、自分たちの着物をサウロという青年の足もとに置いた。 こうして彼らがステパノに石を投げつけていると、ステパノは主を呼んで、こう言った。「主イエスよ。私の霊をお受けください。」 そして、ひざまずいて、大声でこう叫んだ。「主よ。この罪を彼らに負わせないでください。」こう言って、眠りについた。 使徒の働き7:54−60

In chapter 6, we are told that the Greek speaking widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food.  So the twelve gathered and had the community of believers appoint seven men to deal with this problem.  It is interesting that looking at the seven men who were chosen, they all had Greek names. Probably to make sure that the concerns of the Greek speaking people were going to be properly addressed.  Stephen was one of these men who were chosen.  These men were chosen based on their good standing with the community and were full of the Spirit and wisdom.

We are also told that Stephen did great wonders and signs among the people. Some Jews tried to argue with Stephen, but they could not win against the wisdom of the Spirit that was in him.  So they brought up false charges against him and took him in front of the council.

The high priest asks Stephen whether the accusation that he is blaspheming is true, and Stephen goes into the longest speech recorded in Acts. It is a run through Israel’s history where some in the community opposed the will of God, and yet, God’s will prevailed. He concludes by telling the council that they are opposing the Holy Spirit by opposing the church of Jesus Christ.

The council is enraged by what Stephen says, but when Stephen declares that he is seeing a vision of Jesus standing at the right hand of God, the rage overflows and the council turns into a mob, drags Stephen out of the city and stones him to death.

The council knew of the miracles and wonders that were being performed by the followers of Jesus of Nazareth.  Even though good things were being done in the name of Jesus, they could not bring themselves to believe that this Jesus was indeed the long-awaited Messiah.  Nothing in their belief system could accept a Messiah that would be executed and then come back to life.  Stephen’s vision of Jesus standing at the right hand of God, if true, would mean that Jesus indeed was the Messiah.  They could either accept this or reject it.  And if they reject, then in their minds, Stephen was blaspheming and needed to be put to death.  Under Roman rule, they probably did not have the authority to execute anyone, so they turned into an angry mob.

Stephen’s last action is to pray to Jesus to receive his spirit, and then for the forgiveness of the ones who are murdering him.  Very reminiscent of how Jesus died.

Although Stephen was introduced in chapter 6, and dies in chapter 7, he ends up having impact on the young church.  The way he died, being a witness for Christ until the end, is an example to us all.  If we must die in persecution, this is the way we would aspire to – Asking the Lord for forgiveness for the ones who persecute us.

However, down deep in our hearts, we wonder if we could actually act like Stephen.  We often feel frustration and anger towards those who we “know” are in the wrong, especially about our Lord. We would probably prefer that God somehow punish them rather than forgive them.  Or at least punishe them before He forgives them.

Most of us reading this section would identify ourselves with Stephen, rather than with the mob. Yet, it is good to remember that at least some of the mob took their faith seriously.  They sincerely believed in God, as well as that Jesus was not the Messiah. To them, the only logical way to be faithful to God is to oppose these people who are preaching that Jesus is the Messiah.

Today, even within the church, there are divisions about many things – Politicians, politics, how best to combat things like the pandemic, hunger, homelessness, access to healthcare, etc.  Sometimes we just cannot understand how people with opinions/beliefs that are different than ours believe what they do.  Yet, we probably should acknowledge that there are sincere Christians on both sides, and although they might have opposite views, they are not the enemy.  And even if they are the enemy, we need to remember that the Lord’s command to us concerning our enemies is to not persecute or punish them, but to love them.

If I were in Stephen’s position, knowing that I was going to be killed, my reaction might be anything else but praying for their forgiveness.  But in my heart, I know Stephen did what the Lord would want him to do.  In fact, Stephen did what Jesus did in a similar situation.

That apparently is what Luke is teaching us through this passage.  The key characteristic with which Luke describes Stephen is that he was full of the Spirit. The same Spirit that Stephen was filled with came to fill us when we accepted Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior, and if we let Him, the Holy Spirit will fill us with His love when we most need it.

(the above is a summary of the message shared by Shun Takano during our zoom worship time on June 13, 2021.)