As we continued in our series, Telling Our Story, yesterday morning, we ran into an uncomfortable truth. Sometimes life is unfair. Sometimes it is unfair and sometimes it seems like God doesn’t do anything to fix that. We see this in the story of Stephen, one of the original deacons appointed by the church and who was having a powerful ministry until the unfairness of life struck him down. This isn’t an easy conversation to have, but it’s one we must have. Let’s do it together.
This past February some of our brothers and sisters were gathered for worship in the tiny African nation of Burkina Faso. The landlocked country is about the size of the state of Nevada. It is also home to an active and ongoing attempt by Muslim radicals linked to the Islamic State to gain control of the nation in order to enforce their will on it. The believers worshiped that morning like they had done so for years and years together. This particular morning, however, their praise was interrupted by shouts and gunfire. Terrorists burst into the sanctuary with guns blazing. Twenty-four worshipers were murdered in cold blood including the church’s pastor. A dozen more were injured in the gunfire and many more still were kidnapped.
In China, the communist authorities have never done more than offering churches a tenuous line of toleration. In recent years, that tenuous tolerance has grown increasingly strained. Even churches which were once properly registered and okay with a bit of communist control over activities and messages in exchange for being able to operate openly have been shut down. Worshipers are arrested. Crosses on buildings are taken down. Whole church buildings have been demolished.
In this country, the Supreme Court recently gave a narrow approval to a Nevada law that allows for secular entities like casinos to operate at 50% capacity—which for some means hundreds of people gathered together, often crowded around the close quarters of something like a roulette wheel—while only allowing churches a max of 50 people regardless of their size. For a bit of perspective, the consistent attendance of our 8:30 service would make that gathering illegal in the state of Nevada.
Now, it’s a fair question whether churches in our nation deserve to be in the same company as in places like Burkina Faso, but what is clear is that while it comes at varying levels depending on the relevant constitutional restraints and prevailing cultural worldview, the world always thinks in a single set of terms when it comes to people of faith: Might makes right. If it can be done, it will be done. And if more force will get the job done more thoroughly than a moderate amount of force, more force will be applied. Sometimes this gets applied to non-Christian religious groups like the Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar in recent years or the Uighur Muslims in China right now, but the fact is that Christians are far and away the most persecuted group in the world. What the world doesn’t understand and has in fact never understood, though, is that the harder you try and squash the church, the more we have thrived. That’s simply the story of the church.
This morning, we are in the sixth part of our series, Telling Our Story. This actually brings us to the halfway point in this journey. For the last few weeks and yet a few more ahead of us, Lord willing, we have been making our way through the story of the early church as told by Luke in the book of Acts. Along the way, we have seen how they started picking up the pieces in the aftermath of Jesus’ departure by taking the next right steps in accomplishing the big task He left for them to do. We have seen the Spirit come powerfully and the church explode into existence. We watched with interest at the boldness of the apostles because of their overwhelming confidence in the truth of their message and mission. This boldness led them to stand out from the rest of the world as something entirely new and different. Then, with Nate’s great help last week, you saw how the church began to organize and organizationalize when some internal challenges arose, and how a commitment to every part of the church to serve as God designed them to serve allowed them to grow stronger and continue thriving.
In the best possible terms, the followers of Jesus were threatening to take over the whole city. As Nate mentioned last week in Acts 6:7, even priests were starting to go over to the side of the believers in great numbers. Tensions with the Jewish ruling elite were at a fever pitch as they tried and failed time and time again to thwart the movement’s incredible progress. They didn’t want to turn to outright violence to stop them because that might always get Rome involved which was something they wanted to avoid if at all possible for fear that innocent and faithful Jews would get caught up in their net. But nothing else was working.
Nothing else was working, that is, until the believers made a mistake. They made the mistake Nate told you about last week. What mistake is that? They elevated new leaders to positions of prominence. But wait…wasn’t that an intentional and wise move on their part that resulted in great gains for the church? Well, it was, but in elevating new leaders who weren’t the original twelve apostles and thus didn’t have their support and fear from the crowds, now the church had some new figureheads at whom the religious elite could aim their weapons.
The first and most prominent of these was Stephen. Stephen was one of those original seven men who were raised up to handle the waiting of tables for the Hellenistic widows in the daily food distribution lines while the apostles continued their Gospel proclamation work. Somewhat ironically, the only things we are actually told he did in Acts don’t have anything to do with the work to which he was appointed. What he did do, though, was powerful. Listen to how Luke describes this starting in Acts 6:8: “Now Stephen, full of grace and power, was performing great wonders and signs among the people.”
Let me see if I can paint a picture of what may have been going on here. In the course of waiting on tables (because we can safely assume that he at least started off doing the work to which he had been called by the church), Stephen began to share the Gospel with the people he was serving. Listen church, he was serving where God called him and being a faithful witness there. He wasn’t doing anything extraordinary or beyond what any one of us can do—serve faithfully where Jesus has called us and be a witness there to everyone God brings across our path. That’s another sermon. In any event, the more faithful Stephen was, the more God blessed his faithfulness and made it more and more fruitful. Eventually, his reputation began to proceed him like the apostles’ did. And, like the apostles experienced, a growing reputation meant a greater likelihood of conflict with the powers-that-be. That’s exactly what he found.
Verse 9: “Opposition arose, however, from some members of the Freemen’s Synagogue, composed of both Cyrenians and Alexandrians, and some from Cilicia and Asia, and they began to argue with Stephen.” Stephen’s initial pushback was mostly rhetorical. These were Jews from more intellectually fashionable parts of the world who sought to score a win over Stephen by theological debate. Except…they couldn’t. “But they were unable to stand up against his wisdom and the Spirit by whom he was speaking.” Remember when Jesus said that the Holy Spirit would give us the words to say if we ever found ourselves in a situation very much like this one? He wasn’t lying. And when the Spirit, the personification of wisdom Himself, is the one giving you your lines, you stand a pretty good chance of winning the argument.
So, when argument failed, they turned to subterfuge and outright deception. “Then they secretly persuaded some men to say, ‘We heard him speaking blasphemous words against Moses and God.’ They stirred up the people, the elders, and the scribes; so they came, seized him, and took him to the Sanhedrin. They also presented false witnesses who said, ‘This man never stops speaking against this holy place and the law. For we heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs that Moses handed down to us.’ And all those who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at him…”
Now, can we call this what it was? This wasn’t fair. These men were violating the very law they professed to uphold. The Ninth Commandment says this: “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor,” which is exactly what they were doing to Stephen. They were taking his words completely out of context and were twisting them for their own, biased ends. And, no matter what he said in response, it was going to be framed as an admission of guilt. This wasn’t fair. It wasn’t just. It wasn’t right. And we shouldn’t expect anything else from the world. When the world comes after us, it won’t play fair. The bad guys never do.
And listen to this so you’re not hearing something I’m not saying. I am not saying non-Christians are our enemies. Guys like Paul are explicitly clear they are not. But the systems of this world are broken by sin because the people who run them are broken by sin and are thus infused with the evil of the enemy. In other words, yes, the systems of this world are the bad guys. And they’re not going to play fair. Their attacks will be unjust, untrue, unfair, unethical, immoral, and whatever else seems like it will be necessary to advance their cause because they aren’t bound to any of the moral restrictions we are. They are under nothing like the command to love your neighbor as yourself. They can—and will—hate their neighbor with impunity because they haven’t signed up for any other kind of system. But the people are not our enemies. They are unique individuals whom God loves and for whom Christ died. Period.
Stephen understood this. He looked at these people who hated him so ferociously and loved them like Jesus did. It’s no wonder that when they looked intently at him they “saw that his face was like the face of an angel.” And because they needed to give at least the appearance of propriety, the high priest gave Stephen the floor to defend himself.
What follows is a lengthy review of the history of Israel that, frankly, has always been a bit of a mystery to me. How exactly did Stephen imagine that reciting the history these men already knew so well would work to defend him from their charges? And then, in one of those moments that I really can’t contribute to anything other than the Spirit giving me a bit of a nudge, something clicked this time. Stephen isn’t defending himself at all in chapter 7. And I know your Bible, like mine, might label this section as “Stephen’s sermon,” but it’s really not even that either. He’s indicting the people who are sitting before him in all their assumed glory. They thought they were putting him on trial, but it turns out that God was using Stephen to make the case against them.
Specifically, the point he’s making—and I encourage you to go home and read this chapter for yourself; if you’ve read it before and not really understood it, I think this will help things click—is that the people’s rejection of Jesus falls right in line with their rejection of Moses. Moses was the guy as far as the Jews of the day were concerned. Stephen points out using the source they all agreed was authoritative that even though they looked up to Moses then, in his day, the people rejected him again and again. In fact, the history of Israel reveals they always rejected the prophets God sent to call them to the truth and the light. The whole thing lands on a stinging indictment that boldly ignored the gravity of the situation: “You stiff-necked people with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are always resisting the Holy Spirit. As your ancestors did, you do also. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They even killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become. You received the law under the direction of angels and yet have not kept it.” Like I said, bold.
And if this were a movie, this would be the scene when the hearts of the accusers finally changed. Justice was served, just not in the way anyone expected. Stephen would have walked out of that courtroom justified and satisfied. He would have gone on to have a powerful impact on the city that rivaled that of the apostles themselves. But the world doesn’t play fair. When the world comes after us, it won’t play fair.
Stephen doesn’t get justice. He gets murdered. “They yelled at the top of their voices, covered their ears, and together rushed against him. They dragged him out of the city and began to stone him.” We tend to glide past references to stoning in the Scriptures, but it was—and still is in many parts of the Muslim world today—a brutal way to put someone to death. It worked just like it sounds—a crowd threw large rocks at the victim until he died from blunt force trauma. This enraged mob, dragged Stephen to the edge of town and put him to death. They couldn’t out-argue him. They couldn’t overcome his own personal righteousness. They couldn’t make any charges stick—even the false ones. So they simply murdered him. He became the first Christian martyr. The first of tens or even hundreds of millions over the centuries. And against the background of the evil of these unjust men, Stephen’s righteousness shines ever more brightly as his earthly star burns out. His last words are of forgiveness echoing some of the final words of Jesus Himself. None of this was right or fair, but when the world comes after us, it won’t play fair.
Okay, fine, but what do we actually do with this? I mean, think for a minute about the impact this would have had on the church. Up to this point, things had gotten occasionally serious, but not much more than that. Sure, the apostles had been threatened, arrested, and even beaten, and that was bad, but nothing more than that. They had all the wind at their backs, filling their sails. There have been several indicators of the fact that their efforts in Jerusalem were incredibly successful. Tension had been building, but their success kept the tide at bay. With Stephen’s death it broke. Hard. All of a sudden, the aura of invincibility that had been carrying them forward vanished like a smoke. They could afford to be bold before because nothing too significant was a stake. Now people were dying. As we’ll see next week, believers had to flee Jerusalem for their lives. This young man named Saul who held the coats of the men who threw the stones at Stephen was unleashed on the church and seemed poised to be like Stephen was, but for the other side. It wasn’t fair.
Come on, wouldn’t you have gone there if you were in their shoes? God, you called us to do all of this, why are you allowing this to happen? Stephen was doing great work for you. He was powerfully advancing your kingdom. Why didn’t you protect him? Where are you? This isn’t fair, God. Are you with me? And yet, when the world comes after us, it won’t play fair. But don’t miss this last part: Sometimes God allows it to happen. Sometimes God allows the unfairness to unfold without any apparent limits. Fine, but why?
Let me give you two answers to that question and then we’re out of here. The first answer is this: God is absolutely committed to advancing and expanding His kingdom. Everything He does is with that in mind. Everything. What that means for you is that if you trust Him with your life, He will be working to advance His kingdom in your life no matter what—even through the hard stuff. When the world comes after us, it won’t play fair, but God is still committed to advancing His kingdom even in times like that. As proof—and this is the second answer to the question—come back next week. You won’t want to miss out on seeing what happens next.