In the book of Acts, we find Christianity in its infancy. Early believers are zealously spreading the good news of Jesus and thousands are being saved. But as their numbers grow, so does the hatred for them. What starts in celebration quickly becomes a matter of life or death as Christians become hunted down for their belief. In no time flat, we see a believer martyred for the first time.
Stephen is a man eagerly sharing the good news of Christ and his zeal for the Lord quickly draws sinister opposition. Men are persuaded to tell horrible lies about Stephen and he’s quickly accused of blasphemous crimes and arrested. He’s dragged in front of the authorities and put on trial where he’s given the opportunity to defend himself. Instead, he shares the gospel, and shortly after the enraged mob stones him to death.
When Stephen’s story is told and discussed, most of the emphasis lies on his death. It is remarkable after all. He’s been regarded throughout history as the first Christian martyr. But as powerful as Stephen’s death is, I wonder if it’s not far more powerful what decisions brought him there. Consider that Stephen could have made a case for himself. He could have begged for his life or tried to out the lies against him. He could have railed against the injustice of it all and insisted on his own rights, swearing to get even with those against him.
But he didn’t.
Rather than lobby for worldly justice, Stephen committed himself to heavenly mercy. He turned a witness stand into a pulpit and we have no idea who may have believed because of that decision.
That decision also cost him his life.
There’s a scene in the incredible mini-series Band of Brothers that, in a way, speaks directly to this. Without going into too much backstory (and I could, because I could talk all day about the genius that is Band of Brothers), a soldier confesses to an officer that he stayed hidden in a ditch on D-Day for some time rather than find his unit, believing he did so simply because he was scared. His captain corrects him, saying that he actually stayed in the ditch because he was holding on to the hope of living. He goes on to tell the young man: “The only hope you have is to accept the fact that you're already dead. And the sooner you accept that, the sooner you'll be able to function as a soldier's supposed to function.”
It’s a truly sobering moment. The scared young man stands in silence letting the weight of such a notion sink in while his captain strolls away, already at peace with such a heavy reality.
It may not seem like there’s much connection between the stoning of Stephen in Acts and a two-minute scene from a war drama, but it has everything to do with the attitude we’re called to as Christians. Far too many believers, especially in our modern age, have become enchanted with the idea of worldly justice. We want justice here in this life and now. We want to see those who speak against us get their comeuppance. We want our rights protected and our interests preserved. But haven’t we been told time and time again to expect just the opposite?
Consider how many times Christ told his followers that the world would hate them. Not once did he follow it up by saying that worldly justice would follow. More often than not he flatly told them that they would likely lose their lives. Consider how many times he told them to take up their cross. We so often hear “take up your cross” and equate it with bearing through hard times. Rarely do we consider that, as in the case of Jesus, taking up your cross is the final step before your own crucifixion.
Much more comprehensively than that scene from Band of Brothers, Jesus continuously imparts the idea that our hope can’t be in preserving our earthly lives if we want to have a true role in the heavenly kingdom. The world is at war spiritually, and to think that you can make it without it any danger or pain to yourself is no different than hiding in a ditch in a physical war. If you want to be a Christian who does big things for the Kingdom, you have to count yourself as already dead.
Stephen got this in its entirety. It’s on display in every word of his speech before his accusers. This is not the language of a man who thinks he can get himself out alive. This is the voice of a man striking one last blow. To his last words, Stephen does nothing to preserve his earthly life and everything to speak of God’s glory.
The outcome of Stephen’s life and ministry would have been vastly different if his hope had been in earthly survival. His rejection of worldly justice in favor of heavenly glory shaped the belief of others around him and in the centuries since his death. He chose to be part of something bigger than himself. Stephen didn’t refuse to make a case for worldly justice because he was scared or passive or weak. He didn’t go to his stoning because he was trapped with nowhere else to go and was paralyzed by fear. He went through those things because he knew where he stood in the bigger picture. Stephen had counted himself as dead for the cause long before anyone reached for the first stone.
I won’t try to disguise what a sobering reality that is in relation to ourselves, but I would submit that we are far better served by sobering reality based on truth than wishful thinking based on falsehoods. This is our reality. We have to decide what to do with it or the decision will surely be made for us.
I’m not saying that we will all be at risk of being stoned for our beliefs, but we have to keep ourselves sharp to the belief that God’s love matters so much more than worldly justice. The believers who have done the most for the kingdom very often suffered the most horribly here on earth. If we want to be like them, we have to be ready to suffer like them. This reality is not without hope. For Christians to count themselves as lost to the world is to declare themselves found in Christ. I think we might enjoy the eternal glory of that reality more than any temporary pain on earth.
Let’s find some joy,