This past week we’ve been at Christian camp and one of the stories I taught was the story of Stephen. I don’t think I’ve ever preached on Stephen because it’s not really a story that gets nearly enough attention. It’s really incredible, though, that Stephen was chosen in the distribution of food because he was full of wisdom and the Holy Spirit. His tenure did not last long at all. It turns out that Stephen could not keep silent about his God. He wanted everyone to know how amazing God is and he was doing great wonders and signs among the people.
It didn’t take long for false witnesses to arise and accuse Stephen of some very ungodly things. Stephen was arrested and he used this opportunity to preach about Jesus Christ. When Stephen accused them of resisting the Holy Spirit, they had had enough. The crowd ground their teeth at him. Stephen looked up to heaven and said, “Behold I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:56 ESV). At this, they stopped their ears, rushed him, and began stoning Stephen, laying their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul.
When Stephen fell to his knees, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (vs. 60). After he said this, Stephen fell asleep and died. Stephen’s faithfulness to the end and his plea for God to forgive these men of murder had to have had a major impact on Saul (later named Paul). It may not have moved Saul in the moment, but later when Jesus appeared to Saul on the road to Damascus, he most likely would have been haunted by Stephen’s last words. This story shows us the importance of being faithful to the end and treating people with mercy. This one act of grace that Stephen had for Paul and the others would be a catalyst that sparked one of the most influential evangelists in the history of Christianity. We’ll rarely know what influence we’ll have on others by being faithful to God.
We’ve spent the past few weeks discussing Jesus’ method for recruiting, training, and sending his twelve apostles, as well as additional disciples. Jesus went through this entire process very quickly. He didn’t drag his feet or string the disciples along. Instead, he called them to immediately and completely follow him, he warned them of impending persecution, and then sent them out among the wolves.
Then, as he sent them out, he said, “So have no fear of them, for nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. What I tell you in the dark, say in the light, and what you hear whispered, proclaim it on the housetops. And do not fear those who kill body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:26-28 ESV).
Anyone who has ever been oppressed, persecuted, or controlled in any way knows how terrifying people can be. People who have power to control others instill a deep sense of fear. They use threats and intimidation to control their victims, rendering them powerless and often physically, emotionally, and spiritually unwell. Jesus was in stark contrast to oppressors. He was a safe shelter for people who lived in constant fear. His disciples were going to be intimidated, beaten, shamed, and threatened to stop speaking.
Jesus didn’t tell them to lay low. Instead, he told them not to fear and to speak truth even louder! This is a timeless message that we still need to hear 2,000 years later!
When Jesus sent his disciples out into the towns, he warned them that persecution was waiting for them. They were going to be drug before courts, experience floggings in their synagogues, and were going to be dragged before governors and kings for Jesus’ sake. This was a very sobering thing to tell his brand-new disciples. Imagine, Jesus told his followers to leave everything behind, including jobs and family, and gave no timeline for how long they would be on the move.
Very shortly after they left everything, he split them up into groups and sent them out into towns, but with a very stern warning: “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16 ESV). Then he warned them of the types of persecution they would encounter along the way. But then the warning gets worse: “Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved” (vs. 21-22).
“Pastors resigning” is trending this week on social media because people are realizing how many preachers are leaving ministry this year due to, it is thought, the stresses of the pandemic. I’m seeing some of these people leaving ministry talk about their “persecution.” Trust that internal struggles, tensions, and even in-fighting is not the same as persecution. Jesus clearly defined persecution, and warned his disciples that they would face it immediately. This training proved to be very good, because the early church would face severe persecution and would thrive in that environment.
Perhaps we should better equip each other to face severe punishment. Traumatic experiences tend to cripple people today because forgiveness is used as a weapon, instead of teaching Christians to stand up to these evils of oppression and persecution.
When Jesus told his disciples that they would be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth, it’s hard to imagine that they knew what challenges waited for them. Very shortly after the ascension of Jesus, the church was persecuted and scattered. Christians were literally meeting in a cave in Antioch of Syria (which ended up becoming the sending church for Paul and Barnabas on their missionary journeys).
Peter clearly had in mind preaching to Jewish people. But that idea got flipped on its head when God sent him to Cornelius, a God-fearing Gentile. When more persecution came, James the brother of John was killed with the sword. This alone would have been a devastating blow to the disciples, because James was one of the “inner circle” during Jesus’ ministry.
As if James’ death wasn’t bad enough, Peter was imprisoned. “He (Herod) killed James the brother of John with the sword, and when he saw that it pleased the Jews, he proceeded to arrest Peter also” (Acts 12:2, 3 ESV). We don’t know why Herod kept Peter alive and not James, but clearly Herod was most likely going to put on a show for the Jewish people before killing Peter. Luke records a miraculous escape for Peter, then Peter appears to a group of people praying at Mark’s mother’s house. He told them to “tell these things to James and the brothers,” then he left and went somewhere else.
Peter did not shrink back. Neither did the other disciples. They boldly preached the word of God, because Jesus told them that they would be his witnesses. This is an amazing example of the boldness that we need to have today. The Gospel will go on, but we need to be willing to step up and share it.
Photo by Denny Müller on Unsplash
It can’t be overstated how hostile Paul was to the church. He was a hardcore Pharisee who persecuted Christians. The persecution was so strong in Jerusalem that many fled north to hide out in Antioch of Syria. In fact, the first church that met there met in a cave. The cave where they assembled is still very much in tact today.
God works in powerful ways, and after Paul was converted on the road to Damascus, he went to Tarsus. Barnabas visited the church in Antioch and, “when he came and saw the grace of God, he was glad, and he exhorted them all to remain faithful to the Lord with steadfast purpose, for he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith” (Acts 11:23 ESV). Luke records that a great many people were added to the Lord. Then Barnabas went looking for Paul in Tarsus to bring him back to Antioch.
Luke records, “For a whole year they met with the church and taught a great many people. And in Antioch the disciples were fist called Christians” (Acts 11:26). It amazing that God sent Paul to teach people at a church that was started because of his persecution! These very people Paul was teaching were the same people who left everything to flee from Paul’s persecution.
The disciples were fist called Christians “Christ-followers” at Antioch. Antioch would quickly become the most important church for spreading the gospel across the Roman Empire, because it was the hub church that sent Paul and his companions out on all the missionary journeys.
Photo courtesy of Volkan Hatem at Wikki Commons.