All week long I’ve struggled with the point of this passage. What are we supposed to get out of this sad story?
Maybe the point is that things don’t always go well for us Christians. This seems like stating the obvious, but sometimes things do go so well that we come to expect success. I mean, think about the stories from Acts we’ve been going over since Easter:
- Peter’s first sermon successfully explained the gospel message: Jesus, a man, whose actions showed he was more than a man, who you crucified, but God raised up.
- That gospel message successfully impacted the crowd: 3,000 people repented, were baptized, received forgiveness, and got the Holy Spirit.
- Those first converts had a successful life together: in learning and worship, in prayer and praise, in breaking bread, looking out for each other.
On a much smaller scale, I’ve felt this kind of high. At my previous appointment we had a few months of blowing-up numbers. No, not 3,000 being baptized at once – but our small worshiping body doubled in size. We didn’t have enough classrooms for the kids or parking spots for our cars. We reveled in those good problems. We started on plans to expand our building and our parking lot.
When things start going well like that, we can start to think this is always what happens. If I’m faithful to Jesus, then I’ll be healthy, wealthy, and wise. If I’m faithful to Jesus, our pews and our offering plates will be overflowing. And sometimes they are…
…except when they’re not (to borrow a line from Dr. Seuss). In the case of my previous church, a sudden and deflating exodus took place. One family left, and some others changed jobs so they couldn’t come to church on Sunday mornings, and a few others relocated to other areas. Within just a few weeks we went from bursting at the seams to fitting all-too-easily within them.
Maybe the early church felt something similar. Peter’s sermons brought in so many converts that the disciples need help in caring for the widows and orphans. Stephen is among the first to be chosen as a deacon, “a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit” (Acts 6:5). “[F]ull of grace and power,” he quickly goes on to do “great wonders and signs among the people” (Acts 6:8).
But this spiritual high was not to last. Stephen’s actions got him the attention of some synagogue leaders, and it wasn’t good attention. They couldn’t stand his wisdom and his Spirit. They make up a charge against him: blasphemy, which Leviticus 24 punishes by death.
Let there be no doubt, success is not our promise as Christians. Jesus Christ got himself hung on a cross, after all. We are promised forgiveness and eternal life and hope… but not the kind of success the world sees. Stephen’s story reminds us of that.
But I don’t think that’s the main reason Luke is telling us this story.
Maybe it has something to do with keeping our ears open. After Stephen is accused he defends himself with a long speech. He starts with Abraham and winds his way through Joseph and Moses to finally land on a counter-accusation: “You always resist the Holy Spirit. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree; your predecessors persecuted the prophets, and so do you – right up to killing the Messiah himself” (Acts 7:51-2, my paraphrase).
Oh, the religious leaders don’t like that.
In one of those rare Holy-Spirit-inspired moments, Stephen sees heaven open up and Jesus there with God. He doesn’t keep this to himself; he points and says to his accusers, “Look!”
But they close their ears.
Instead of listening, they drag Stephen outside the city limits (just like they did to Jesus, Luke 23:26-33). Instead of listening, they give their coats to Saul to hold (yes, the same Saul who would one day change his name and his faith). Instead of listening, they pick up rocks to throw.
The early church probably heard this story and saw this religious group as the clear enemies. I, however, feel very uncomfortable as I read about them stubbornly “covering their ears” to Stephen’s vision of Christ. I feel uncomfortable because I am the religious establishment now. We who go to church and hold positions, we who have arrived at our own conclusions about what is acceptable and unacceptable to God… we are the ones likely to use our hands to cover our ears and pick up stones.
I see in Stephen’s story a reminder to intentionally open my ears. Because the longer I’m a United Methodist pastor the more I want to tow the company line. Because it’s easy to start thinking the way I’ve always done things is the only way to do things. Because I’m afraid that God might sends us a messenger to say, “Look! I see Jesus!” and we might miss it because we simply don’t want to disrupt our lives by listening.
This is an important point in the story.
But I still don’t think it’s the point.
The point of a story often comes near the end, and something exceptional happens at the end: forgiveness. The religious leaders are throwing rocks at him, taking a bit of his life away with every brutal stone. They are acting out of anger, out of emotion, out of bloodlust. And he says:
“Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60).
This strikes me as nothing short of miraculous. How hard is it for us to forgive people of much lesser things: the neighbor who neglected to call, or the friend who shared a secret, or the church member who voted for the other party? And here’s Stephen – literally being stoned to death – and he uses the last of his breath to forgive the guys with rocks in their hands.
Over and over again Jesus calls his disciples to forgiveness. Lest we try to avoid it, it’s right there in the Lord’s prayer: “…and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Any of us who claim to be followers of Christ must forgive others – for things as small as a cold shoulder and as large as a thrown stone.
This is a very important reminder from Stephen’s story.
But it’s not the point. It’s not the reason Luke is telling us about it.
On Thursday morning I read over the story again. As I mulled it over in the quiet of a new day, the big point hit me. I suddenly understood the main reason this is included in the Acts of the early Christians. The big point is:
Faith in Jesus Christ is worth dying for.
Not everything is worth dying for. I love Star Wars, for example. I’ve seen the movies and read some of the books. I have Star Wars themed mugs, hand towels, and phone cases. I’ll stay up late to see the first-night showing of the new movies. I may not be the biggest fan… but I’m a fan.
But goodness, I wouldn’t die for Star Wars. Threaten my life and you could get me to say that Episode I was the best of the seven or that Greedo fired the first shot. I love it… but it’s not life and death for me.
When something is worth dying for, our whole lives revolve around that thing. Or that person. The closest most of us come to this is a child or a spouse or a best friend, someone for whom we’d step in front of a moving car without hesitation. Those tend to be the people that also define who we are. For them we would – and do – rearrange our schedules, our budgets, and our homes without blinking an eye.
I think often of how Jesus said anyone who really loves him, loves him more than mother or father, son or daughter (Matthew 10:37). Today is Mother’s Day, a day that reminds me of my two small kids and two amazing parents. To love Jesus more than them…
…well, that would be something worth dying for.
And if I love Jesus enough to die for him – as Stephen clearly did – then that will reprioritize my whole life.
It’ll mean obeying his command to forgive others, even when it’s painfully hard.
It’ll mean opening my ears to hear his good news, even when it is unexpected and challenging.
It’ll mean being faithful to him, even when by the world’s standards I’m failing.
May we have love and faith enough in Jesus Christ that we’re willing to die for him… and through it, may we come to find real life.
And that, I think, is the point.
Will Willimon’s commentary on Acts in the Interpretation series
Craddock and Boring’s commentary on Acts in The People’s New Testament Commentary
The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary