“The Jewish leaders were infuriated by Stephen’s accusation, and they shook their fists in rage. …Then they put their hands over their ears, and drowning out his voice with their shouts, they rushed at him. They dragged him out of the city and began to stone him” (Acts 7:54,57-58).
How had Stephen come to this point? It could have been avoided. It would have been so simple. Perhaps a few less direct words concerning his beliefs about Jesus would have been prudent. Perhaps more sensitivity to the beliefs of the people to whom he spoke would have been in order. Perhaps a bit more discretion would have been wise. Couldn’t he have been as effective by allowing his good deeds to speak for him and for Jesus, rather than his words?
In a word, no. Stephen had a message to share. His life had been changed, and he wanted everyone to know what he now knew as absolute truth. Acts 6 and 7 tell the story of Stephen standing firm in the face of bitter opposition. He stood firm because he loved others and wanted them to understand the life-changing and life-giving message of Jesus Christ’s death, resurrection, and provision for our salvation. Stephen stood firm regardless of any personal consequences.
And so he was stoned to death. Reason tells us that overwhelming fear should have been the predominant emotion during those minutes of extreme peril. But that was not the case. Instead, Stephen faced those stones and the people who threw them, with his face aglow “as bright as an angel’s” (Acts 6:15).
How was Stephen able to not fear the hatred of the crowd and his certain death? It was because Stephen had his eyes fixed on Jesus, not his dire circumstances. We are told that “Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed steadily upward into heaven and saw the glory of God, and he saw Jesus standing in the place of honor at God’s right hand” (Acts 7:55). He knew that his faith was not misplaced.
Perhaps Stephen, on his own, could not have gathered the courage to speak the words of truth that infuriated the crowd and began this confrontation. But God could give him the courage, and He did.
In his own strength, Stephen could not have risen above the laws of physics, which bind humans to this earth, to see into Heaven. He could not have ignored the physical pain and torture of rocks hitting him with such force that life departed from his battered body. But God could help him to look beyond and bear these circumstances.
By himself, Stephen could not have moved beyond the emotions that would naturally occur toward those determined to kill him. But God could give him the ability to do so and did. Astonishingly, Stephen’s last earthly words cried out to God for mercy, rather than condemnation, for those who killed him.
Fear did not mark Stephen’s death—peace and forgiveness did. The manner in which Stephen died was a compelling witness even to those who hated the followers of Jesus—including Saul who observed what happened.
Stephen’s unwavering faith, and witness to that faith, made a tremendous difference. He was the first of many through the years who have paid greatly to follow Christ. Their stories humble us. But their stories should also challenge us and make us consider what our response would be in similar circumstances. Like Stephen, and like countless others since Stephen, may we be as reliant on our Lord and as steadfast in our faith.
© 2010 Arlina Yates