Acts 7:54-8:8 (AD 31)
In his big sermon (chapter 7), Stephen told hard truths to an unfriendly audience. Truths that he knew – barring a miracle – they would not accept. Truths that he further knew would enrage them.
There had not yet been a Christian martyr, so most likely he wasn’t expecting that their rage would be fatal. And yet the first Christian martyr treated the coming of death as it really was: the journey home. He wasn’t in denial of what was happening to him; rather he, more than anyone who was around him, knew exactly what was happening next.
Notice in verse 57, the religious leaders were so terrified of the thought they were witnessing blasphemy, that they couldn’t bear even to listen to what Stephen was saying. They drowned out his words with yelling, then dragged him away and stoned him to death. They didn’t question their reaction, they didn’t check it, filter it, think about it. They knew what they knew, or thought they did, and the solution to it was murder. No doubt they believed they were doing God’s will, but there was no sincerity of desire to find out what that will really was.
Through the terrible tragedy of the death of Stephen and the evil persecution by Saul of Tarsus, Christianity started to spread. Bear in mind that on the Day of Pentecost alone, 3,000 people were saved, so there were a LOT of missionaries leaving Jerusalem around this time. Not individually commissioned, but knowing that Jesus was alive. Not with a great missionary strategy, but knowing they weren’t going to stick around to get arrested by Saul of Tarsus. Not with any gospel literature, but determined to tell whoever they met about the truth: Jesus was alive, and their sins could be forgiven.
After Christians enjoyed the goodwill of the community for months after Jesus’ resurrection, suddenly everything was turned on its head. People understood that Christians were happy to live among them, work with them and treat them well, but they would not be quiet about what they believed. Not because they wanted to offend anyone – quite the opposite: they wanted everyone to be saved. If they hadn’t cared, they’d have kept quiet. If Jesus hadn’t been raised from the dead, Stephen would have kept quiet and stayed alive. Instead, he went home to be with God. Painfully, but he went home. Without regrets, without fear, but knowing exactly where he belonged and to whom he belonged.
May that be said of all of us: that we know where and to whom we belong. Where home is. And that we want others to join us. And that we won’t stop testifying to the truth of who Jesus is, regardless of whether society loves and treasures us, or hates us and wants us dead.