Tuesday, August 5, 2014

The Stoning of Stephen

54 Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him. 55 But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” 57 But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together [2] at him. 58 Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep. (Acts 7:53-60 (ESV)
Stephen is stoned. The people he is talking to cannot bear to hear the gospel. It enrages them. It does not stop Stephen. Just before his death he is given a vision of Jesus standing at the right hand of God. To be at the right hand is to hold all power and authority, and as literal as the vision may have been, it’s meaning meant more than any physical location of Jesus. To be at the right hand is to be equal with God. At this his hearers rush him outside of the city to stone him. No one was to be stoned within the camp, within the city.  
As they go out of the city to stone Stephen we are introduced to the next major character in Acts, one who will take center stage. It is Saul. It is at his feet that the coats are dropped to free up their arms. It is actually interesting that Saul is there. He was a student of Gamaliel. This was the man who in Chapter five had cautioned against persecuting the followers of Jesus. His teachings are recorded and can be found and studied even today. Again the gospel doesn’t happen in an historical vacuum, but in this space and time that we inhabit. It interacts with characters we know from extra Biblical sources it doesn’t drop from heaven. Gamaliel was known for teaching moderation and tolerance, and being a cautious teacher of the law. So what is recorded of him in chapter 5 is typical of who he was. So what is Saul doing at the stoning of Stephen if he is a student of Gamaliel.
For one Saul was a Jew of the diaspora so probably shared the same synagogue of the freedmen that Stephen attended, where the scriptures would be read in Greek. Paul was from Tarsus, and would be at home in this language, and even if he wasn’t a freedman, would have wanted to speak and talk, and maybe even teach what we was learning with these men with whom he shared a common tongue and experience. But it wouldn’t be the first time a student has strayed from his teacher’s teaching. A young man zealous to prove himself you can see him getting caught up in the fervor of the moment and carrying it forward. Yet, his teacher’s moderate stance would always be behind him serving as a corrective, and the words of caution that they might be found opposing God has to plague his heart as he hears Stephen preach the gospel.
One might think that Stephen was unsuccessful. He preaching got him killed. There is no one he could point to before he died and say, this one the Holy Spirit used me to convert. He found no crowds to follow him. But here his preaching reaches the ears of Saul, and starts Saul on a course for conversion that will reach its climax with the risen Christ revealing himself to Saul on the road to Damascus and his subsequent baptism there. It’s very possible that none of these other things would have happened if it wasn’t for Stephen’s preaching. Maybe it would have occurred in some other way, who knows.

Often we have opportunity to share the gospel with others and we become discouraged because we don’t see instantaneous results. We attach the worth of sharing the gospel to results we can see. Instead, like Stephen we should be thankful that God has given us this opportunity  to share in his work, and trust that his word will not return empty but will accomplish its purpose in its own time according to God’s will. Some plant and some water, some harvest. Whatever it is we do in the name of the Lord, it is an awesome and glorious thing, and the Lord will see it to fruition.  

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