Stephen had preformed miraculous signs and argued for the Christian faith ( 6:8-10 ).
Jews from North Africa had made false allegations of blasphemy against him ( 6:11 ). They said that Jesus claimed he would destroy the Temple and change the customs of Moses ( 6:14 ). This resulted in Stephen being brought before the Sanhedrin, the ruling Jewish council.
Stephen replied that Moses prophesied about Jesus and that Jesus fulfils the Law. Not only that but God does not live in a temple.
Stephen went on to point out that the Israelites had throughout their history persecuted the prophets, and now they had killed Jesus the Messiah. We then come to our reading for today from Acts.
As the Jews rushed at Stephen he had a vision of Jesus standing at the right hand of God. Welcoming him into heaven. Just as Stephen had confessed Jesus before the Sanhedrin. So Jesus was now confessing that Stephen was his follower before God the Father.
Jesus said ( Mark 8:38 ) : "If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his Father's glory with the holy angels."
The O.T. law, Deut 17:7, said that a blasphemer should be taken outside the city and stoned to death. The witnesses to the blasphemy should be the first to throw the stones. However, Roman law did not allow this, so Stephen's killing was the result of mob violence
There are several parallels between the death of Jesus, and that of Stephen.
1) The false evidence of blasphemy.
2) Their words. Each one committed their spirit into God's care, and each one prayed for forgiveness for the ones who were killing them.
Stephen's words and his forgiveness were inspired by the forgiveness that he had received from Christ.
Dr Barnado was a medical student in east London. He went to a public house to sell Bibles, but many inside were already drunk beyond reason and started to attack him. He was flung to the ground, a table placed upon his prostrate body, and the pub clientele danced on it. He was removed unconscious, bruised from head to foot with two broken ribs. The police heard of this and wanted to prosecute the ringleaders. Barnado refused to cooperate saying, " I have begun with the gospel, and I am determined not to end with the law."
Many of us, I guess would have been tempted in such a situation to help the police. To forgive can seem unnatural. We have a sense of justice that says that someone should pay for the wrong that they do. But if we rely upon the law, then we condemn ourselves. We can only rely upon God, and the undeserved forgiveness that he gives us through Jesus. Something that we celebrate and proclaim in our Holy Communion Service.
I his book "Sit, Walk, Stand," Watchman Nee relates an encounter that he had with an engineer who is a Christian. The engineer had been away from home with his job and during his absence his wife was unfaithful with his best friend. So he lost his wife, two children and best friend. He tried to forgive them but found himself full of hate. Every day he tried to forgive them, and every day he failed. He asked Watchman Nee what to do.
"Do nothing at all", came the reply.
"What do you mean ?" asked the man. "Am I to continue to hate them ?"
Nee said to him, "The solution to the problem lies here, that when the Lord Jesus dies for you on the cross he not only bore your sins away, but he bore you away too. When he was crucified your old man was crucified in him. So that the unforgiving you, who cannot love those who have wronged you, has been taken right out of the way in his death. God has dealt with the situation on the cross, and there is nothing left for you to deal with. Just say to him 'Lord, I cannot love and I give up trying, but I count on your perfect love. I cannot forgive but I trust you to forgive instead of me, and to do henceforth in me.'
Nee explained that he had to cease to struggle, and let God take over.
The engineer said, "Brother, I have seen it. Praise God, it's alright with me now ! There's nothing for me to do. He has done it all."
With a radiant face he went off rejoicing.
We need to understand the reality that we have exchanged our old life for a new one. "The old has gone the new has come", as we read last week from 2 Cor. 5:17.
After he had asked Jesus to forgive them it says "he fell asleep", verse 60. An unexpectedly beautiful and peaceful description of a brutal death. Stephen had peace with God through Jesus.
In 1556, in the reign of the Roman Catholic Queen Mary, the Reformers Ridley and Latimer were burned at the stake. Latimer said, "Be of good cheer, Master Ridley, by the grace of God we shall this day light such a candle in England as shall never be put out." And so it was.
In this enlightened age we may think that persecution and martyrdom of Christians does not happen. Whilst we can be thankful that this is not so in this country persecution is widespread today. In China, North Africa, and Arab countries Christianity in at best discouraged. Those who convert to Christianity can be sentenced to death.
Give out stones.
These stones, symbolising the stoning of Stephen, are to remind us that there are Christians who are being persecuted for their faith. Perhaps you would like to place it near your Bible, or where you pray to remind you to pray. To pray for the Christian s who are persecuted, but also for those who do the persecuting. For God loves them to, and wants them to come to Jesus. We see this illustrated in Saul. Who approved of the stoning of Stephen. Who imprisoned Christians. Yet who came to be a leader and evangelist in the early church.
As we read at the start of Chapter 8 the persecution led to the church being scattered. Stephen had proclaimed that God was to be found in a people, and not a place. Now the church demonstrated this as they left Jerusalem. They preached the word as they went ( 8:4 ).
So what appeared to be negative, the persecution, worked for the good of the gospel. God was, and is, in control. Even when things may not appear to be going well.
In China there is persecution, but it is not very oppressive. A house church leader in Shanghai said, "The government have given enough freedom to evangelise, but retained the apparatus of oppression to punish us when we did. Those are the ideal conditions for church growth." Churches are asked to register with the government. This can result in them being left alone. However, if they evangelise or witness they are persecuted.
A Christian visitor to China commented : "Any house church Christian who has experienced harassment would probably say that persecution needs to continue to prevent the Church from becoming apathetic and materialistic like the Church in England."
Perhaps we ought to be praying for persecution in this country.
So what can we learn from Stephen, and the stories that we have heard ?
We are to forgive by relying on the gospel. A gospel that is rooted in forgiveness.
We should pray. Reminded by our stones. For Christians who are persecuted, and for their persecutors.
We are to thank God that he is in control, even though things may not be easy.