Last time we discovered that Stephen had been falsely accused. An opportunity was given to him when the high priest asked him if these charges were true. He testified with vigor, not intimated at all. Everyone was listening in awe until he declared: “You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him – you who have received the law that was given through angels but have not obeyed it.” (Acts 7:51-53, NIV2)
The crowd became furious; however, Stephen was bathing in peace, his face shining. After all, he had experienced fully the presence of the Holy Spirit within him. His focus had been constantly on the Risen One. As he lifted his eyes up to heaven, he saw the glory of God, Jesus standing on the right hand of God. Innocently, he declared: “Look…I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” (Acts 7:56, NIV2)
The mob was far from being appeased. It’s no wonder, as an angry mob cannot stand the presence of God: “At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him.” (Acts 7:57-58a, NIV2)
While being stoned, Stephen was still at peace. He prayed out loud, the way Jesus would do: “While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he fell on his knees and cried out, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he fell asleep.” (Acts 7:60, NIV2) Our first Christian martyr.
We have never been guaranteed an easy life. Jesus promised us that He would always be with us, no matter what our circumstances (See Matthew 28:20), just as He was with Stephen until the end.
Jesus also promised a peace beyond understanding. This, too, Stephen experienced fully, even while he was being stoned: “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33, NIV2)
No matter when or why we are accused, we can rely on our Father’s Holy Spirit to guide us: “But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you. “(Matt 10:19-20, NIV2) This, too, Stephen experienced. He never had to worry about what to say!
Some may say, “What a waste!” Stephen could have been a bit more diplomatic. However, when God’s Spirit fills us to overflowing, no one can ever stop us from being who we are: Followers of the Most High.
All of this was not for naught. Someone in this nasty mob had witnessed what had happened. He, too, was vigorously opposed to the cause, he even persecuted Christians with vigor. That day, however, he witnessed something he had never seen before: Someone being martyred while remaining completely at peace. That sure must have baffled him: “The witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.” (Acts 7:58, NIV2) It laid a foundation for what was soon was to come: a direct encounter with the Risen One. He ended up being the most vigorous witness of the One named Jesus.
Some among us may be quite fearful to face death. This doesn’t have to be the case. In one moment, we find ourselves in a place that is way more beautiful than anything we have seen on earth. We find ourselves welcomed by the Risen One, the One who paid the price for our salvation. Imagine the peace and love that we will encounter in that blink of a moment: “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.” (Rom 8:18, NIV2)
Many have experienced this. The night of April 8/9, 1917, the landscape was blanketed with snow. Still the soldiers of the 1/4th Battalion Seaforth Highlanders had a mission: An offensive attack against the Germans in Arras. As they were marching on, the Lieutenant Colonel J.S. Uthank had an unusual encounter. As he crossed the German second line trenches, he discovered two Seaforth Highlanders who had definitively been killed by the blast of an overhead shell. One of them was found in the kneeling position with his New Testament in his hand, while the other soldier was in a sitting position with his arms outstretched to heaven. Even in death they were able to testify. After all, Jesus was the source of their comfort. The Lieutenant Colonel would never forget what he had seen.
May we always remember to pray fervently for our fellow believers who are facing persecution. We have it easy here in the Western world. Any opposition here is child’s play compared to what happens in other parts of our world.
(To access the entire “Facing Unimaginable Odds” devotional series, please click here.)