Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, performed great wonders and signs among the people. Opposition arose, however, from members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen… began to argue with Stephen. But they could not stand up against the wisdom the Spirit gave him as he spoke. Then they secretly persuaded some men to say, “We have heard Stephen speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God.” So they stirred up the people and the elders and the teachers of the law. They seized Stephen and brought him before the Sanhedrin. They produced false witnesses, who testified, “This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place and against the law. For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us.” Acts 6-18
The full account of Stephen, found in Acts 6 – Acts 7:60, may appear to be about Stephen on trial. But who is really on trial here? In reality, this is a trial of conflicting worldviews.
The Jewish leaders were threatened by Stephen’s worldview. They believed that God’s presence was in the temple and everyone who was worthy would come only to the temple to worship. They believed that following the letter of the law was the only way to be right with God.
But Stephen’s words were contrary to the conventional wisdom of the day. In chapter 7, Stephen gave an eloquent history of the nation of Israel, outlining the many times that God was present, the many times that the nation rejected God’s prophets, and countered the ideal that God’s presence was restricted to the temple:
“However, the Most High does not live in houses made by human hands. As the prophet says: ‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me? says the Lord. Or where will my resting place be? Has not my hand made all these things?’ “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 7:48-50
Stephen’s worldview was on trial. It contradicted the Sanhedrin and all that they worshipped. Stephen was saying that no single place is holy because God is everywhere. The law will not give you standing with God. Stephen threatened their power by proclaiming that God’s ways reach beyond the established boundaries. Their reaction was strong but so was Stephen’s:
…When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, Acts 7:54-57
Stephen was declared guilty in this earthly courtroom but Stephen was secure in the verdict in the heavenly courtroom. He looked to heaven and saw Jesus standing at the right hand of God – a position of advocacy. As Stephen was confessing Jesus before the people who wanted to stone him,he sees Jesus Christ confessing him before God. He understood that Jesus had declared him to be good and right in the heavenly courtroom.
The consequences of the earthly courtroom resulted in Stephen’s death. But the consequences of the heavenly courtroom resulted in eternal life. Stephen knew that no matter what was said about him here on earth, he was declared right by God. When we embrace this same truth, we don’t need to have any other courtroom declare something right about this.
The church scattered after the stoning of Stephen. The persecution pushed the believers out to other lands. Even in this trying moment, God changed the direction of a whole community. There are several implications from the trial and stoning of Stephen.
The Movement of God is Not Manageable
The religious leaders of the day tried to place God in a box, thinking that everyone had to fit into their pre-defined mold. But the church is not manageable. It is dangerous to think that we are the ones who have it right– that our way of worshipping God is the only way. We become just like the people who stoned Stephen if we judge the way that other churches choose to worship.
Suffering is Not Beyond the Hand of God
Sometimes we suffer because of choices we make. Sometimes we suffer because we are in a fallen world with other sinful people and events that cause us to experience terrible suffering. But sometimes when we choose to do the right thing, we will also suffer. Stephen suffered; stoning was a slow and painful death. But, in the end, Stephen asked God to forgive them. Stephen showed people how to suffer well.
There was a significant witness in the crowd. His name was Saul. A Jewish persecutor of Christians who, after a dramatic conversion, became Paul – a leader in the early church who authored most of the New Testament. Saul saw the faith of Stephen in the face of suffering. Stephen never knew what an impact he may have had on that one life. You may think your suffering doesn’t matter, but you may not see the impact it has in the life of another.
Real Security is Found in the Heavenly Court
Everyone seeks security in something. Everyone worships something. David Foster Wallace, a famous writer who was not a person of faith, communicated it this way:
There’s no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship…. If you worship money and things – if they are where you find your real meaning in life – you’ll never have enough. If it’s worshipping your own body and beauty and the sexual allure that you have, you’ll always feel ugly and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you. It’s the truth. On one level, we already know this. The trick is keeping the truth in front of us in a daily, conscious kind of place so that we will feel when we are weak and afraid, and will never forget it. Worship power and you’ll need more and more power to keep yourself feeling powerful. Worship your intellect and being seen as smart and you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, and always on the verge of being found out. The insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they are evil or sinful, but that they’re unconscious – that they’re our default settings. They’re the kind of worship that you just gradually slip into day after day, getting more and more selective about what you see and how you measure value without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing.
When your security is in anything other than Jesus Christ, you’ll be devastated when something threatens it. But when your security is in how you are declared by the heavenly court, then we’re able to face anything that comes your way. You will know that it doesn’t ultimately matter what happens to you. What is more significant is how you honor God because He has already worked on your behalf. Understanding and embracing what Jesus has done for you will free you from all the temporary things you worship. They will no longer have the power to define you.
We can make a difference in our world is when, as a group, we are defined by what Jesus did for us. The way we experience Christ will make us winsome and give us the capacity to be a part of this unstoppable movement that continues to change our world.