We have just witnessed Stephen being stoned to death. He received this “sentence” because he professed belief in Jesus as the Messiah. He had committed NO crime and was not guilty of any offense worthy of death. For the new church, first blood has been shed. Not the first drops of blood, as the apostles were beaten on previous occasions. I am also NOT discounting Jesus’ blood being shed. His blood paved the way for the possibility of the church. But this was the first person recorded as killed for his faith in Jesus Christ. So what happened next?
Attitudes and behaviors changed on BOTH sides of the conflict at this crossroads. On the side of the new church, it brought about a disbursement of the people. “They were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles” (verse 1b). The apostles remained in Jerusalem but those who didn’t live in Jerusalem previously left the city for their own protection.
On the side of the religious establishment, it wet their appetite for suppression. “And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem” (verse 1a). Saul would emerge as one of the most ardent supporters of this persecution. “Saul was ravaging the church and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison” (verse 3).
Have you ever noticed that God uses adversity? He doesn’t cause it but He sure capitalizes on it. Prior to this day, the church was growing by leaps and bounds but they were limited to the immediate area of Jerusalem. They gathered in the homes in Jerusalem to learn from the apostles. They went to the temple daily to pray. They ministered in Jerusalem and the nearby towns. When new converts joined the ranks they too stayed in Jerusalem to join in with the growing group. We don’t know the whole number of this growing group but we are certain it was over 8,000 strong. I don’t know how many people that city could hold but I’m guessing it was getting crowded.
The two groups (new church v religious establishment) were growing in conflict every day. They had more and more opportunities to butt up against one another. So in this sort of situation there are only a few possible outcomes: 1) one group overwhelms or suppresses the other, 2) one group absorbs the other, 3) a mutual compromise is reached where both groups take on characteristics of the other, or 4) one group withdraws. The religious establishment voted for option number one. They tried this through beatings and threats. But Stephen’s words pushed them over the line. No longer were they content to threaten or even to heed Gamaliel’s words. They pulled out the stops. This new group HAD to go.
Ok, so how did God use that you ask? Here is what I see. The new church, though threatened and physically beaten, was content to remain in Jerusalem. They were reaching new people every day. They had a steady stream of newcomers into the city and therefore a new group to reach out to on a daily basis. They felt no urgency to go beyond the nearby cities. But God didn’t want the gospel contained to one specific region or people. He wanted it spread across the face of the whole earth. He gave it time to grow a firm foundation in teaching and numbers, but then it was time to start reaching out instead of drawing in. Something had to push them out of their comfort zone. He used Stephen’s death to do just that.
I’m going to go out on a limb here. If you don’t agree with me, I will not be offended. If I offend you, I apologize in advance. You can skip right on by if you want. I’ll let you know when to come back in.
When Stephen was brought before the council the Holy Spirit gave him the words to say. The Spirit walked Stephen and his listeners through the beginnings of the Jewish faith and history. The Spirit answered the charges brought up against Stephen with the truth. But He also did it in such a way that it was guaranteed to get a rise out of those listening. The Spirit knew their hot button issues and He pushed them all. He also knew where all the bodies were buried and He unearthed them too. NOTHING was off limits, including calling them the same names (stiff necked people) God used on their predecessors. It almost feels as if the Spirit was pushing them to their breaking point on purpose. Mind you, they chose what action to take, but the Spirit saw to it that they had enough motivation to act.
Stephen was in the presence of Jesus from the moment he stepped into that room. His physical body would suffer the blows of the rocks but his spirit was comforted at all times. I believe his physical body succumbed to the rocks faster than normal so he wouldn’t suffer prolonged pain. I believe Jesus escorted him home as soon as he asked for forgiveness for his murderers. God, the Spirit and Jesus didn’t kill Stephen but they certainly allowed and capitalized on the circumstances that brought it about.
Just like the momma bird makes the next uncomfortable when it’s time for the young to go out on their own; God allows difficulties in our lives to move us from the comfortable condition into the action position. Thorns in my nest. Were they introduced to induce movement or were they there all along and I just had too much padding to be bothered by them? Only when I’m bothered enough by them do I finally move to avoid them.
Ok, you can come back now. I’m finished “wondering out loud.” What I do know for sure is that God brought about good out of that bad situation. He did it then and He is still doing it today.
Father God, thank You for being there with Stephen. Thank You for having that group of men care for his earthly remains. Thank You too for making it uncomfortable enough in Jerusalem to move the gospel out into the world. Who knows what the church would have looked like if it stayed there. Would it have found a way to compromise to “get along” or would they have been absorbed? YOU wouldn’t compromise the truth for Your own Son’s safety so there was no way You would compromise it now. It cost too much. Thank You for paying that price and for keeping us strong through it. Jesus only! No other name under Heaven by which we can be saved.