Oct. 14, 2012
Background Scripture: Acts 7:51-8:1a
Devotional Reading: Ephesians 6:13-20
The story of Stephen, which comes to an inspiring climax in Acts 7, is both his story and history. It inspired the little Christian community in Jerusalem at that time and it also can inspire and instruct us today.
The times are different, but the circumstances are not dissimilar. There are abundant parallels for any who will examine them.
Luke tells us his foes “could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit” with which he spoke. Then they secretly instigated men, who said, ‘We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God. And they stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him and seized him and brought him before the council.”
The term translated as “stirred up” suggests a frame-up. If you doubt there is a parallel to this today, stop and consider what is almost going on between the Republicans and Democrats as we approach the coming election. Why is it, in order to win a political point – or an election – that many American Christians cannot desist from depending upon frame-ups?
It is not a reflection on the politicians alone, but on all of us. If we were not so ready to get in on the mud-slinging, the politicians would have to give it up, too. Is mud-slinging (lying and cheating) becoming our national pastime? And are Christians willing participants?
The old danger
Second, Stephen demonstrates to us that in order to understand where we stand, it is important to understand how we got there. His defense traces the course of the Hebrew faith from Abraham, through the times of the patriarchs and up to the crucifixion of Jesus.
All of these were blessed by God because they heeded His call to reach beyond the familiar and comfortable to great ventures of faith. The faith remained much the same, but the circumstances in which it was lived out were constantly changing.
The spirit of faith “must be housed in a system.” Stephen’s contemporaries were realizing they needed an ordained ministry, a specific liturgy, a collection of authoritative scriptures and the like.
But what they did not comprehend was “once the system was made, the house built, the old danger is always present; namely, the danger that men should suppose God’s Spirit to be permanently housed” in that system. The Spirit is timeless, but the system is always temporary.**
This leads religious people to conclude the supreme necessity is “to preserve the house at all costs.” And “Spirit is like the wind: You can catch it but you cannot hold it. The wind can blow through a room but close the windows and try to keep the wind and its freshness disappears and its power vanishes.”
All too often in the church today, we give up the Sprit so we can hang on to the systems we want to keep frozen in place. Thus we are often threatened by the “Stephens” of today. This is also why we fail to see God working in our world, because we can’t take our eyes off the systems. A house of God is not intended to be a museum.
Freezing the faith
This passion to put religion into a mold and freeze it has been with us since day one. That’s why the prophets were so hated; they were constantly challenging God’s people to preserve the Spirit, not the forms: “Which of the prophets did not your fathers persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you received the law … and did not keep it” (7:52,53).
We can understand – although not agree – with the manner in which the people responded to these pronouncements by Stephen: “Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth against him” (7:54).
Stephen was not defeated: “But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.” His foes could not see what Stephen was seeing, but what they saw was a man who was enraptured by something or Someone to which they were completely blinded by their rage.
Through the long history of the Church, many Christians have stood where Stephen’s foes stood, blinded from the heavenly vision by the perverse power of their hatred.
Many of us, standing where Stephen stood, would probably pray to God for Him to intervene and “get us out of here!” But Stephen, like the Lord Jesus, had only two requests: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” and, while the stones crushed out his life, he prayed again: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (7:59,60).
To the words he spoke before the Sanhedrin, Stephen added the commitment of his life, death and what lay beyond. His testimony was validated by his life and death. Stephen was stoned, but not stained.
Would that all of us could make the same prayer and receive the same blessing.
**This and following quotations are from Theodore P. Ferris, former rector of Trinity Church, Copley Square, Boston, Mass.
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