And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” (Acts 7:60).
The above text captures the very last words of Stephen as he was martyred for his faith. He was one of the leaders appointed over the affairs of the church in Acts 6 when a dispute arose over the distribution of food. Apart from “serving tables” as the Scriptures puts it, we are also told Stephen was used mightly with signs and wonders in the witnessing of the resurrection of Christ:
“And Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people.” (Acts 6:8).
You would have expected that this will go well with the people. Instead, Stephen got into trouble with the people and religious authorities. Not only did he get into trouble with the authorities; false accussations were made against him.
Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), and of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of those from Cilicia and Asia, rose up and disputed with Stephen. But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking. Then they secretly instigated men who said, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” And they stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him and seized him and brought him before the council, and they set up false d witnesses who said, “This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us. (Acts 6:8-14).
Now brought before the council, Stephen was given the opportunity to defend himself:
“And the high priest said, “Are these things so?” (Acts 7:1).
In his defence which spans from vv1-59, Stephen basically recounted the history of the Jewish people from the call of Abraham up to the revelation of Christ. Then he uses the word of God to judge the people for killing Christ. That agitated them and he was eventually killed.
But the words he spoke before he died are of great interest, as I believe it holds instructions for how Christians are to respond in times of suffering. Let’s examine the text and see what we can learn from it.
To be gracious is to show mercy, kindness or forgiveness. It is also to treat people with respect and courtesy especially in the face of hostilities. In the text we see a remarkable example of forgiveness even in the face of suffering and death. Now most of us reading this will not come to the point of losing our lives just for what we believe. The Hebrew writer made that point when he called his readers to perseverance:
“In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.”(Heb. 12:4).
That said, living in a fallen world amongst fallen people (ourselves included), we will face situations that will demand we treat people graciously and with forgiveness. As believers, we will be mocked, insulted, misunderstood, and treated badly by others. When this happens, how do you respond? Like Stephen, we must deal with people graciously and learn to forgive. Stephen, even in the face of death asked for forgiveness for his enemies. He was a man “full of grace“, the Scripture said (Acts 6:8).
The Example Of Christ
Stephen’s actions ultimately points us to the example of Christ. Beginning from Isaiah’s Messianic prophecy, we learnt that though he was oppressed, Christ didn’t open his mouth. Christ actually “lived” this prophesy so to to speak. On the cross, he forgave those who wrongfully murdered him:
“And Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34).
Christ, in his death, which was for the forgiveness of sins, demonstrated that forgiveness for which he was killed.
As a believer, you have been forgiven so much. Once an enemy of God, Christ has reconciled you in his death and forgivenss. So from the example of Stephen and ultimately of Christ, let us learn to forgive one another.