“You men who are stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears are always resisting the Holy Spirit; you are doing just as your fathers did.Which one of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? They killed those who had previously announced the coming of the Righteous One, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become; you who received the law as ordained by angels, and yet did not keep it.” Now when they heard this, they were cut to the quick, and they began gnashing their teeth at him. But being full of the Holy Spirit, he gazed intently into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God; and he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened up and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” But they cried out with a loud voice, and covered their ears and rushed at him with one impulse.When they had driven him out of the city, they began stoning him; and the witnesses laid aside their robes at the feet of a young man named Saul.They went on stoning Stephen as he called on the Lord and said, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” Then falling on his knees, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” Having said this, he fell asleep.
I have to admit I have found the inclusion of Stephen in the Encounters Series challenging. Previous posts have been people who have met the Lord naturally on earth, Stephen’s encounter is a supernatural experience with Christ after His Ascension to Heaven. In my view Stephen’s encounter is every bit as real and transformative as any earthly encounter.
There is not much information about Stephen in scripture. The most useful background information is that he was a Hellenistic Jew; that is a Jew of Greek descent. Indeed Stephen is a Greek name. Greek culture had spread and was adopted by many corners of the world including the Holy Land, resulting in regional migration creating Jewish communities throughout Greek lands. As these communities grew many eventually made the return journey to Jerusalem. This brought about conflict between Hebrew Jews who had stayed and the returning Hellenistic Jews. This is the foundation of the conflict that arises in Acts 6; the Hellenists believed their widows were being overlooked in the sharing of food by the church.
The Apostles appointed seven deacons to oversee the fair distribution of food. Stephen was the prominent appointee amongst the deacons being recognized as “a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 6:5). The distinction of being recognized as “full” (filled up) with faith and the Holy Spirit by his brethren is commendable; would our brethren say the same of us today? Stephen became instrumental in the work of sharing the Good News in Jerusalem bringing many to the faith by “grace (love) and power” (Acts 6:8). The Spirit of the Lord was with him as he shared the Gospel of Christ. His success in converting many to Christ was despised by other jealous immigrant Jews from Africa, Syria and Asia, who when unable to talk him down brought false charges of blasphemy against Stephen to the Sanhedrin. False witnesses were called by his enemies to accuse Stephen before the Ruling Council. The similarity to the trial of Jesus is striking (Matthew 26:59-61). But in this hostile situation Stephen maintained graceful. Today Christians face opposition, jealousy and false accusations in the world as Satan seeks to stop the advance of the Kingdom.
Stephen’s courage and grace before the ruling council is noted by those who witness it (Acts 6:15); an example for future persecuted generations to follow. Stephen’s response (Acts 7:1-53) to the Council was wholly Jewish in content, but was structurally Greek in presentation. It is a summary of Jewish history guided by two principles; firstly that the presence of God is not restricted to any location or building and, secondly that throughout history there was a continuous thread of ingratitude by the Hebrews to the chosen purpose of God. The Council listened patiently as Stephen retold their proud history, but as he neared his conclusion they understood the accusatory implications of his speech and began haranguing him. The final three verses of the speech have a more urgent ring as Stephen is keen to finish his sermon.
This is too much for the Council and his accusers to bear, they bawl him down. Stephen held onto his grace, realising the danger he was in “he gazed intently into heaven.” The final prayer of a condemned man. He was heard! The heavens opened to him and he saw the glory of God and his Lord and Saviour at His right hand, what a wondrous sight! It isn’t surprising how he utters words in amazement of the vision before his eyes, not to anyone in particular but in simple awe. He says“Behold, I see the heavens opened up and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God,” he is gazing on Jesus as He looks on Stephen – what an overwhelming thought! As his accusers drag him outside and begin stoning him the divine presence is not broken, but continues. The actions of men can not dispel the Holy One! In his final breaths Stephen surrenders his body, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” and intercedes for his attackers, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” Then “he fell asleep.” His transportation to Glory was synonymous with that of Enoch (Genesis 5:24), in that Stephen did not fully feel the full effect of stoning for “he fell asleep.”
Dear reader, the story of Stephen – the first martyr for the Christian faith is a rich story. It is one which shows us the cost of divisions within a fellowship, where selfish ambitions reign above Godly goals. Stephen is a sterling example of discipleship in a sinful world, let us endeavour to follow his devotion to our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.