We are at the conclusion of Stephen’s story. I have no doubt that Paul/Saul relayed this story to Luke after he himself came to know Jesus. Who else would have been in attendance to witness how Stephen met Jesus. I also believe the Holy Spirit burned this event into Saul’s memory that day. I want to take us into that council room personally today and see it through firsthand eyes. We will need to back up a little bit to have a better view of that day.
Stephen has been serving the people for a couple of months now in his new position. He makes certain that EVERYONE is included and that no one goes hungry or without. He is also praying for people and they receive their healing through the working of the Holy Spirit. He is becoming well known among the community. You hear people speaking about his works anywhere you go in Jerusalem.
Gezrim and Magdon have had about as much of this “Stephen” talk as they can stomach! They are from the synagogue of the Freedmen and have been trying to bring more disciples into their folds. Stephen is bringing disciples by the dozens nearly every day so why can’t they? Some of their brother faiths have also been having “Stephen trouble” lately. There aren’t many left who aren’t going over to Stephen.
Late one night this disgruntled group gets together and hatches a plan. Gezrim says, “We need to call him out into open debate. It’s time he was exposed for the charlatan he is. I know the Torah the best so I will lead the discussion.” All are in agreement and they choose which subjects they want to focus on. They also agree that time is of the essence so they will confront him in the square tomorrow morning.
Early the next morning Stephen comes to the square to meet with any who are in need. He has brought food, clothing, money and his heart full of the Spirit. There are people gathered there to receive each of the gifts Stephen has brought. Many simply want to receive the blessing of Stephen’s sharing of the gospel that day. It seems like Stephen can’t go even a single hour without sharing the wonders of God’s plan for us.
Gezrim and his group are also in attendance. They are determined to put an end to this daily ritual. “Stephen, we would like to ask you a few questions.” The great debate begins and Gezrim’s group is thoroughly put to shame. Every attack is fended off with expert skill and the teachings of Jesus are laid open for all in attendance to understand. At the end of the debate even more people turn their lives over to Jesus and ask to receive the baptism Stephen has speaking about.
Gesrim’s group tries on two more occasions but they receive the same trouncing as before. Magdon has another idea. “What if we have someone accuse Stephen of a crime? His own words can even be used against him. All it will take is for someone to give them just a little different slant. It can’t be one of us though because then it would look suspicious. I have a cousin, Jandel, who lives on the other side of the city. I could get him to bring charges against Stephen. We would have to pay him though to make sure he sticks to the story we want told.” The others quickly agree and the plan is put in motion.
Two more days pass after that midnight meeting. Bargains have been struck and scripts have been memorized. Jandel and two of his closest friends go to the temple and seeks out one of the chief priests. “Rabbi, I hate to bother you but we are in need of your guidance. We have been hearing for some time now a young man teaching in the square whom we believe is spreading words of blaspheme. As God fearing Jews we can remain quiet no longer. Something must be done.”
“Is this true”, asks the chief priest as he looks to the other men.
“Yes, it is true. He speaks the same kinds of words as the criminal Jesus of Nazareth did before the council was able to finally silence Him.”
“I will bring the matter before the council this evening and see what is to be done. Remain available, as we will require your testimony on this matter. I expect action will be taken by sundown tomorrow.”
The next morning Stephen is in his usual place in the square when an armed contingent of men approaches. The leader of the group steps forward. “Where is the man called Stephen? We have orders to escort him to the council chambers.”
Stephen steps forward. “I am Stephen.” Before he can speak another word he is grabbed and shoved into the center of the group of men. They quickly move through the city, ignoring any attempt by the people to question what they are doing. Stephen is silent and obedient as he is pushed and shoved along the street.
When the group reaches the council chamber Stephen is forcefully propelled into the center of the room. He waits quietly with a peaceful look on his face. He radiates calm from every pore in his body.
The proceedings begin with the original chief priest presenting Jandel and his companions for their testimony. “This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us” (Acts 6:13-14).
Stephen continues to watch the proceedings in perfect peace. Silently in his heart he is praying for the Holy Spirit to give him the words to say to these men and to give him the boldness to stand firm for Jesus.
Finally the high priest speaks up. “Are these things so?” (Acts 7:1). It’s time!
Stephen opens his mouth and the word of the Holy Spirit pour out. He shares God’s plan with them from the beginning. In the beginning heads are nodding and shaking with agreement and condemnation of the acts of previous generations. Yes, so many of their fathers failed God in the past, but NOT them. THEY were devout. They were following God’s directives to the letter.
All was going well until Stephen referred to the temple as unable to contain God. His defense turned to an offence at that point. “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you” (Acts 7:51).
Heads snap up and jaws drop around the room. Next fists begin to form and jaws snap shut. Fire burned in the room in every eye except Stephen’s. His face turns heavenward. For him no one in the room is of any consequence. He can’t help but exclaim the beauty he is seeing through the Holy Spirit. “I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (verse 56).
Screams tear through the room and once “dignified” men rush from every corner of the room to grab hold of Stephen. Many have their ears covered and are yelling at Stephen to be silent. He stands perfectly still as they charge him. He doesn’t flinch or cry out as he is bodily lifted from the floor. As one the group carries Stephen from the room and into the street.
Through the city they go, gathering attentions and followers along the way. As soon as they clear the city wall they hurl Stephen to the ground. By this time there are over 100 men in attendance. As the members of the council bend to retrieve stones so do the onlookers. One young disciple of the Pharisees who had been in the outer chamber when the chaos broke out stands to the side. “Saul, hold my robe. It would not do for me to soil my priestly robe.” Other robes are deposited at Saul’s feet.
During the shedding of robes and the collecting of rocks Stephen stands still. He doesn’t try to escape or plead for his life. He looks out at his accusers with sorrow in his eyes. Not sorrow for himself but sorrow for them. How could they be so blind? He also realizes at that moment that he is facing the same choice Jesus faced. He can hold this moment against them or ask God for forgiveness for them. He chooses to follow in Jesus’ footsteps once more.
Stones begin flying through the air and connecting with Stephen’s body. They continue to rain down upon him and he falls to his knees. Stephen cries out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (verse 60). He falls over and immediately dies. His face registers nothing but peace and forgiveness.
Saul can’t help but watch as Stephen succumbs to the stones. This will be a memory he will carry with him forever. But he doesn’t realize why this memory is burned so deeply in his mind. He has seen public stonings before but this one is different. It is different because of Stephen’s conviction and peace. These thoughts don’t register at the time, but they will come back to him when the time is right. This same conviction and peace will carry him through his own times of trouble.
Father God, thank You for providing for Stephen in that moment. I pray I never have to face such an ordeal. In my daily walk give me the conviction of Stephen and the peace he had from Your Spirit. You provided Stephen with the opportunity to speak for You and the words to say. You brought him to the attention of a young man You would use later on in ministry in a mighty way. YOU didn’t kill Stephen but You used his death to build Your Kingdom. Thank You that You can take anything bad and use it for Your good, IF we turn it over to You. Please do the same with the tough times in my life. I put them all in Your hands. Help me have the grace to forgive as fully as Stephen did.