"But before all this, they will lay hands on you and persecute you. They will deliver you to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors, and all on account of my name. This will result in your being witnesses to them. But make up your mind not to worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves. For I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict. (Jesus in Luke 21:12-15, NIV)
|To me, it's just like this...|
The last two days my personal Bible reading has been from Acts 7, the account of Stephen's bold stand before the Sanhedrin. There he stands, a Martin Luther before the Diet of Worms way before Martin's time, before the highest court in the land asked to answer to the trumped up charges against him. This group of religious thugs who personally handled the murder of Jesus of Nazareth and who attempted to silence the apostles through the threat of violence not too long before now sit in judgment against him. In my mind, he's like Kirk before the Klingon High Council in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, an innocent man framed for the death of Chancellor Gorkon. There is death in the air and despite a pretense of a fair hearing, it's all window-dressing for a lynch mob. But Stephen is not intimidated by their scowls, their flowing robes, their murderous eyes, their aura of infallibility. He is unbowed.
|He was a man bold as a lion|
Every preacher worth his salt wants to be like him in that moment – if that moment should come. Fearless. Undaunted. A reckless desire to be found faithful regardless of the outcome. Like William Travis drawing his famous line in the sand, I hope to be found just as stalwart, just as stubborn if stubbornness is called for. The longest of the Acts' speeches (there are several of them), while I have read it before it's never really done much for me. After all, it is a sermon spoken by a Jewish man to a group of Jewish men in a message that is highly contextualized. “The Most High does not live in houses made by men” (v. 48)? No duh, says a 21st Century evangelical in reply. But to those First Century guys who were the caretakers of the Temple and all it stood for these were fighting words. Living in a pluralistic society where my right to speak my mind is still defended by the powers that be, our circumstances could not be more different.
So why did Luke include it in his account at all? Why not just write, “Stephen boldly gave a defense of the gospel before the Sanhedrin which led to their finding him guilty of blasphemy”? I mean, he wasn't there. Maybe twenty years or more have gone by since Stephen's death and while it is significant to recall the particulars of the martyrdom of the first martyr of the Church of what benefit to us modern folks do we get from his final last words?
Here's a couple of things I get. First of all, if, in fact, a couple of decades have gone by since Stephen's death by the time Luke's hears the tale for the first time, the fact that there are still people around able to relate the gist of what he said that day is remarkable. Words last, (– well, at least some words do.) That speaks of an inspiration that comes from another Source than just the man himself. Secondly, he was no rube from the Diaspora despite the fact that's exactly how these angry men perceived him. He is eloquent, passionate, articulate – and his words are testimony to the fact that just as Jesus had promised they have reduced his accusers “to stammers and stutters” (Luke 21:15, Msg). In the end they strip off whatever legal veneer they had attempted to coat these proceedings with and do what they had purposed to do all along. Soon after, his life is taken but with the words of forgiveness for his persecutors on his lips as they attempt to silence him.
Of Stephen, Sri Lankan Ajith Fernando writes,
The ministry of Stephen helped blaze new trails for the gospel, which has earned him the title “radical.” He opened the door theologically for the world mission of the church. We do not know whether he himself realized this, but he freed Christianity from the temple and therefore from Judaism. A short time later the church concluded that one does not have to be Jewish first in order to be a Christian. Though Stephen ended his life an apparent failure, though he did not see the fruit of his theologizing, God revealed later that his ministry had borne great fruit. The trail he blazed was later followed by Paul – the one who approved of his death (8:1) and kept the clothes of those who stoned him (7:58), but who later became the apostle to the Gentiles. (Acts: The NIV Application Commentary, pp. 247-48)
Those are reasons enough to remember what he said that day. It's not likely I'll be in a similar situation anytime soon. But if that time should come, I'm comforted by the fact that the Spirit of God promises to give me what words and wisdom I'll need to be as bold as a lion as Stephen was. And in the mean time, may the same Spirit who filled him and caused others to regard him as a man “full of God's grace and power” (6:8) fill me.