If you have grown up in church you have most likely heard of Stephen. Stephen was the first martyr for our Lord Jesus Christ.
More often than not when we read and talk about Stephen, we focus on his devotion to the Lord and how he was full of faith and of the Holy Spirit. When we talk about Stephen we may also focus on the grace that was given to Paul by the Lord on the road to Damascus. We talk about how Stephen is our introduction to Paul who is arguably the most influential man in the first-century church.
But too often we forget the burden that Paul placed on this same church. We forget the pain and suffering he levied on them and we rarely put ourselves in their position. We forget the degree of forgiveness that the church gave to Paul.
The Selection of Stephen
In Acts 6, we see the first deacons chosen to serve.
Acts 6:1 Now during those days, when the disciples were increasing in number, the Hellenists complained against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food.
Imagine your mother was one of the widows being neglected.
You are the one who needed the apostles to act so your mother would have food.
We see this in Acts 6:2-6:
And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait on tables. Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.” What they said pleased the whole community, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, together with Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. They had these men stand before the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.
Imagine that Stephen was the man responsible for distributing food to your mother.
You would be grateful to the apostles, the church and certainly Stephen.
Stephen would have been in your house or your mothers house several times a week if not daily along with the other men who were selected. Over weeks and months, Stephen would have become like a son to your mother and like a brother to you.
Imagine you were one of the men chosen alongside Stephen to serve
Think about the hours you would have spent with him. Think about the many hours walking to the widows homes and eating together with them. He would have become a close friend.
Imagine you were in the congregation when the men were selected
Did you vote for him? Perhaps you insisted on him being selected because you knew his character and that he would serve the widows well.
How many times did you take communion with him? How many insights into the scriptures did he share with you? Think about the hours he would have spent in your house breaking bread and the times of laughter with your children.
Imagine being among those that laid hands on him and prayed over him
We see this in Acts 6:7:
The word of God continued to spread; the number of the disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.
The gospel spread because of Stephen's service to the widows. The service of these men allowed the disciples time to study and preach the word of God and minister to those in need. Think about the gratefulness of the church because of these men who served. Those who believed would have looked to Stephen as an example.
The Signs and Wonders of Stephen
In Acts 6:8 we learn more about who Stephen was.
Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people.
Imagine that Stephen had healed a member of your family. Or perhaps you were there when God's power was on display through him.
All the people who saw the signs and wonders would have marveled at it. Many of whom would surely come to believe.
The Martyrdom of Stephen
Then you heard that Stephen had been called to stand before the High Priest and the council. Did you run to hear what was said? Were you present for his sermon?
Was Stephen the deacon who had been caring for your mother?
Then we see that Stephen preached his last message. Acts 7:54- 8:1
When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen.jBut 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. And Saul approved of their killing him.
Did you watch or did you flee? Did you run or did you try to stop them?
Imagine your emotions when you heard that Stephen had died
The anger. The rage. The desire for vengeance and retribution knowing full well that vengeance is the Lord's.
Did you weep? How strong was the grief and sadness? Did you serve along side him? Did he lead you to the Lord? Was he your mentor? Were you even able to breathe because your close friend and brother had just died?
Were you afraid? What about your mother? Was she still going to receive her allotment of food if Stephen was gone? How long did your mother weep over Stephen?
Some of the church were no doubt filled with anger and sadness. Some of the men would have had to be held back because of their rage to take vengeance.
And what about this man who held the coats?
How could you forgive the men responsible for the death of a beloved friend and brother?
The Persecution of the Church
The church would have heard about Stephen's death immediately but it was too late.
In Acts 8:1b-3 we see
That day a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria. Devout men buried Stephen and made loud lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.
Think about Peter and the other apostles who remained. The fellowship they grew was all but gone. Some of their number were now in prison. Do you start over and risk being put in jail as well? Do you go to the believers who were dispersed?
Surely, the apostles shared in the emotions of their congregation. Surely, they were angry. Surely, they wept.
Imagine being dragged from your house or perhaps to return home and your spouse was missing
First you hear that Stephen had been murdered and now you and your spouse are in prison. Who would take care of your children?
The anger and offense toward your captors would be immense.
Imagine hearing men ravaging through your neighborhood and running to hide
You are gripped with fear because you know why they are coming and they will be here in a manner of moments.
Imagine you are one of the families that were able to get out of the city
The information you have is spotty and you don't know who was in the church was killed or dragged to prison. You are thankful for the escape but filled with anger and sadness.
The Redemption of Saul
You then hear word from Damascus that the one who held the coats has been saved and forgiven.
You might say, "surely, it cannot be. It must be a lie." Perhaps your response was like Ananias.
Acts 9:13 But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to your saints in Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who invoke your name.”
How offended are you at the Lord for what he has done? Do you ask the Lord, "Where is your vengeance? Where is your justice, Lord?"
This man has killed one of your friends and imprisoned so many more. How long does it take you to process what the Lord has done?
The Forgiveness of Saul
Now you are in Jerusalem with the apostles and you hear word of Saul the persecutor has believed. The disciples in Damascus have sent word that he was preaching to the Jews that Jesus is the Son of God. You cannot believe what they are saying.
Then Saul returns in Acts 9:26
When he had come to Jerusalem, he attempted to join the disciples; and they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple.
Now Saul had been rescued out of Damascus and fled to Jerusalem and the only people who could possibly understand the grace that was given to him do not believe his testimony out of fear of the man he used to be.
Imagine hearing Saul say, "I have seen the Lord and he has saved me!" but all you can remember is the face of Stephen and your neighbors who are now in prison.
The Son of Encouragement
And then there is Barnabas. Barnabas, the son of encouragement, goes to Saul. He knows the degree of forgiveness that the Lord will give. After all, it was given to himself.
Barnabas listens to Saul and discerns the change in the man. Barnabas knew Stephen. Barnabas knew the gospel that Stephen had preached to this man. Barnabas knew that the gospel had the power to redeem a man like Saul of Tarsus and he took him to see the apostles in hiding.
Acts 9:27 But Barnabas took him, brought him to the apostles, and described for them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had spoken boldly in the name of Jesus. So he went in and out among them in Jerusalem, speaking boldly in the name of the Lord.
Imagine opening the door to Barnabas and you are surprised by his company. Then the man whom you fear and perhaps even hate, the man who killed your friend and brother and dragged more of your church to prison, is now standing in front of you.
Then Barnabas reminds you of the grace that was given to you. Now you must begin wrestling with the offense that you have stored up in your heart against this man to lay it at the feet of Jesus.
How long do you wrestle with his forgiveness? Can you humble yourself enough to call him brother after everything he has done?
The Forgiveness that the Gospel Demands
Yes, the first-century church endured much but they also were required to forgive much.
Peter goes on to call Paul a beloved brother in 2 Peter 3:14. A beloved brother.
After everything the early church endured, Peter humbled himself enough to call Paul a beloved brother.
In Galatians 2:9, James, Cephas and John extend the right hand of fellowship to Paul and Barnabas.
Given the extreme amount of pain and suffering Saul levied upon the church, can you honestly say that you would forgive him if it was you and your family?
If Stephen was the man giving food to your mother, could you forgive his murderers?
Think now on those whom you need to forgive. Your offense is negligible compared to the early church, yet they forgave. Will you? Can you?
We are commanded to forgive.
In Luke 6:32-36 we see the Lord speaking:
“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
Or 1 John 4:19, which says. "We love because he first loved us."
Or what about John 13:34-35 which says:
I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Giving forgiveness to those who the world expects will surprise no one. Only by loving others just as Christ did will everyone know that we are his disciples.
We see in Matthew 10:21-22 that in the future
"Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved."
We as children and servants who are in the Father's house are not above the master of the house and we will be hated by all people. Is your heart ready to forgive those offenses?
If you cannot forgive the light offenses you suffer now, how can you say you will forgive those that are much greater?
Have you prepared your heart to forgive your brother or sister, or children or parents when they turn you over to put you or your family to death like they did Stephen?
Now is the time to prepare your hearts to forgive the greatest of offenses. Forgive everyone who has offended you.
Therefore, remember the grace that was given to you and forgive everyone even as you have been forgiven.