A fundamental part of being human is our creation and understanding of coherent life stories. The circumstances that bring great joy to us or cause the deepest sense of shame can be found in our perception of what constitutes the good life, and how our own life story is aligning with that perception. The central emotional core of a person or even a group can be discovered in the stories they find themselves in and how they interpret those stories. Sometimes, a challenge to the guiding story of a culture can result in the deepest intolerance, primal anger, and even murder.
Meet Stephen, a leader of the church in Jerusalem, one chosen by the apostles to serve. Stephen is culturally Greek and a Jewish convert to Jesus Christ. In his outreach effort to other Greek-speaking Jews of Jerusalem, as well as before the religious ruling council, he implores them to remember the story of their people—and also includes a firm rebuke.
Stephen’s attempt to defend and persuade reaches back more than two thousand years and recounts the great redemptive story, which of course, includes those to whom he is speaking. He starts with Abraham and ends with the religious leaders’ rejection of Jesus as the Messiah. However, it is Stephen’s critique of the historic pattern of idolatry, their failure to truly follow the law of Moses, the rejection and murder of God’s prophets and now Jesus, that enrages them.
It’s Stephen’s interpretation of the story of God’s plan that brings about their rage. His faithfulness to stand firm and share the true gospel and point to the real Savior places him in extreme danger, and abruptly leads to his death by stoning. Was his life a waste and his death in vain? Absolutely not. Stephen’s martyrdom acted as the catalyst to push the early Christians out of Jerusalem and into the world. In his moment of greatest suffering, he was given a vision of Jesus Christ, prompting him to say: “‘Look, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’” (Acts 7:55–56). And as he dies, he prays for those who are killing him:
“Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” (Acts 7:60).
His words are similar to the words Jesus said while He was suffering on the cross (Luke 23:34); Stephen dies a martyr’s death that continues the work of God. Despite this violent murder scene initiated through false accusation in the most amazing and paradoxical way, Stephen’s prayer, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them”—an echo of Jesus’s own prayer—continues to be answered, as the enemies of God are lovingly and radically reconciled to Him (Romans 5:10).
Written by Robert Wheeler