April 13, Monday
Stephen, one of the seven chosen to serve the poor, was given unusual power and insights; and he performed miracles among the people. A number of devout Jews, from the synagogues of Cyrene and Alexandria and one known as the Libertines as well as some from Cilicia and Asia, tried to publicly debate Stephen; but they were no match for his wisdom nor the dominating presence of the Spirit. Desperate to silence Stephen, they bribed some men to testify against him by claiming that he was “blaspheming Moses and God.” They also stirred up the religious leaders and some in the crowds, who took hold of him and forcibly dragged him to where the Sanhedrin had gathered.
The false witnesses stated their charges: “This man is constantly speaking against this Holy Place and the Law. We even heard him say that Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs which Moses handed down to us.” As these claims were being made, everyone was staring at Stephen whose face had begun to radiate. Witnesses later said he took on the appearance of an angel.
Then the High Priest asked him, “Is what they’re saying true?”
And Stephen answered, “My brothers and my fathers, let me explain. As you know, our glorious God appeared to our forefather Abraham while he was in Mesopotamia before he ever came to live in Haran and said to him, ‘Get out of your country, away from your relatives, and come to a land that I will show you.’
“That is why he left the land of the Chaldeans and settled in Haran. After his father’s death God brought him into this very land where you are living today. God promised him that one day his descendants would settle here. This promise was given before Abraham had any children of his own.
“God also explained to Abraham that his offspring would first live as strangers and slaves in a foreign country for four hundred years. ‘Then I will judge that nation,’ said the Lord, ‘and will lead them safely out to serve Me in this Promised Land.’
“To further distinguish this emerging nation, God introduced the covenant of circumcision; and that is why, when Isaac was born, Abraham circumcised him on the eighth day. Isaac became the father of Jacob; and Jacob, the father of the twelve patriarchs.
“Then began a pattern of Israel rejecting God’s provision. You recall, don’t you, that the patriarchs, in their jealousy of Joseph, sold him as a slave into Egypt; but God was with him and eventually delivered him from all his troubles, giving him unusual wisdom and favor in the eyes of Pharaoh the king of Egypt. Pharaoh made him governor of Egypt and put him in charge of his entire household.
“Then, when the famine struck the region and our forefathers could find no food, Jacob sent our forefathers into Egypt where there was grain to be had. Later, on their second visit to Egypt, Joseph revealed his identity to his brothers and introduced them to Pharaoh. At Joseph’s invitation, Jacob and the entire clan of seventy-five moved to Egypt and lived out their days in that foreign land. When they died, their remains were brought back here to Shechem; they were laid in the tomb which Abraham had purchased from the sons of Hamor.
“As the time drew near for the fulfilment of God’s promise to Abraham, our people grew more and more numerous in Egypt. Eventually another king came to the Egyptian throne who knew nothing of Joseph. This man plotted against our people, forcing our forefathers to abandon their infant sons so that the race would be exterminated.
“That was when Moses was born. God looked upon him with great delight. For three months he was cared for in his own home. Eventually his parents attempted to hide him. Pharaoh’s daughter found him, adopted him, and brought him up as her own son. This gave Moses access to the finest education and training. He gained a reputation as a compelling orator as well as a man of action.
“One day Moses, nearing forty years of age, decided it was time to visit his own brothers, the sons of Israel. When he saw one of them being treated harshly, he went to his defense and struck the Egyptian, killing him. In Moses’ mind, he saw this as the first step in his role as ‘God’s chosen Deliverer’; and he fully expected his Jewish brothers to rally behind his leadership. He was in for a rude awakening. The very next day he went to break up a fight between two Jewish workers. ‘Men, what are you doing?’ he asked. ‘No good can come of injuring each other; we need to work together.’
“But the man who was beating the other turned on Moses and pushed him away, saying, ‘Who do you think you are? What gives you any right to tell us what to do? I suppose you’re going to kill me like you did that Egyptian yesterday, aren’t you?’
That’s when Moses realized he was in trouble, so he fled to the land of Midian. While living in exile there, he became the father of two sons.
“Forty years later, in the desert of Mount Sinai, an angel appeared to him in the flames of a burning bush, much to Moses’ surprise. As he moved toward the bush to get a closer look, the voice of the Lord spoke to him, saying, ‘I am the God of your fathers — the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ Then Moses shook with fear; but the Lord spoke to him again and said, ‘Take your sandals off your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground. I have certainly seen the oppression of My people who are in Egypt; I have heard their groaning and have come down to deliver them. Come now, I am sending you to Egypt.’
“It was this Moses . . .
- who was rejected by his own people when they challenged him, saying, ‘Who made you a ruler and a judge?’
- whom God had raised up to be their deliverer
- to whom the angel of the Lord appeared in the bush
- who performed mighty miracles in Egypt, at the Red Sea, and in the wilderness for forty years
- who declared, ‘The Lord your God will raise up for you a Prophet like me from your brethren’
- who stood between the congregation and the angel who spoke with him on Mt. Sinai
- to whom was given the life-giving instructions of God for His people
“Yet it was our forefathers . . .
- who turned their backs on Moses and turned a deaf ear to the words from God
- whose hearts had turned back to Egypt
- who encouraged Aaron to make a god who could lead them since Moses who had delivered them from Egypt was gone so long on the mountain
- who fashioned a golden calf out of their own possessions and celebrated their accomplishment by offering sacrifices to it
- who worshipped the stars of heaven rather than the Creator
- who were confronted by God through the prophet Amos: ‘Was it to My tabernacle you brought all those sacrifices during the forty years in the wilderness? No, you were, in your hearts, offering them up to the tabernacle of Moloch and the star god, Remphan. Therefore I will take you away from this land into Babylon.’
“Even though they had the tabernacle of God . . .
- which was built according to the precise design which God had given to Moses
- which was carried into this land by our forefathers as God drove out the Gentiles under Joshua
- which was where Israel met with God right up to the time of David
- which was replaced by Solomon’s temple after David prayed that he might establish a permanent dwelling-place for the God of Jacob. Of course we know that the Most High cannot be contained in anything built by human hands as the prophet Isaiah recorded: ‘Heaven is My throne and the earth is My footstool. What kind of house could you build to accommodate Me? Did I not make all these things with My own hands?’
“What is the point of all this? You stubborn people are every bit as bad as your fathers: you constantly resist God’s Spirit, refusing to listen to Him or let Him change your hearts. Can you name any prophets whom your fathers didn’t persecute? Indeed, they killed anyone who foretold the coming of the Messiah; and now you have betrayed and killed the Righteous One. You had God’s Law handed to you by angels and look what you’ve done with it!”
These concluding remarks infuriated the Council and they gnashed their teeth in anger. Stephen, however, being filled with the Holy Spirit, was given a vision of heaven as he gazed skyward. “Oh, look!” he exclaimed, “the heavens are open, and I can see the Son of Man standing at God’s right hand!”
That was the last straw. The people, plugging their ears and shouting to drown out Stephen’s words, grabbed him and dragged him outside the city walls where they began hurling stones upon him. One of the younger Pharisees, a man named Saul, was in hearty agreement with the proceedings. Many, hurrying to participate, left their outer garments in Saul’s charge.
As the rocks flew, Stephen called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” Then, falling to his knees, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” Having said that, he collapsed in the sleep of death, the church’s first martyr. A handful of devout believers took Stephen’s body and buried it with much loud mourning and weeping.
This event touched off a wave of persecution against the church in Jerusalem. The believers, except for the apostles, were forced to flee to the outlying areas of Judea and Samaria. Saul, like a man possessed, ravaged the church as he went from house to house dragging out men and women and throwing them into prison.