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Sunday, January 23, 2011

The legacy of forgiveness

8Stephen, brimming with God's grace and energy, was doing wonderful things among the people, unmistakable signs that God was among them.
(Acts 6:8)

51And you continue, so bullheaded! Calluses on your hearts, flaps on your ears! Deliberately ignoring the Holy Spirit, you're just like your ancestors.
(Acts 7:51)

Our two passages today are taken from a very lengthy story of Stephen - a man appointed by the disciples to be a "deacon" in the church.  In his role as deacon, he was given the responsibility to make sure the widows, orphans, and poor were cared for.  His role as deacon allowed the disciples to go on with their work of spreading the gospel message - preaching, healing the sick, and sharing the good news that Christ was raised from the dead.  His ministry gained him some momentum and there were people who were a little "miffed" because they could not match his wisdom.  This is what we find in Acts 6:

But then some men from the meeting place whose membership was made up of freed slaves, Cyrenians, Alexandrians, and some others from Cilicia and Asia, went up against him trying to argue him down. But they were no match for his wisdom and spirit when he spoke.  (6:9-10)

The whole crux of their dislike of Stephen was that they were no match for his wisdom and the spirit that was evident in his life when he spoke.  That is a pretty awesome testimony, if you ask me.  Stephen had a testimony - even in his role as a deacon in the church.  That testimony spoke volumes - and it drew some attention - right up to the leaders, priests, and Pharisees.  Why?  Because through the ongoing ministry of the New Testament church, even priests of the old Levitical line were being converted and added to the ranks of Christianity!

Stephen was taken into custody by the High Council of the land - those religious leaders who stood to judge the crimes of the people.  He was in custody, not for speaking the truth, but because those who could not match his wisdom cooked up a scheme to "shut him down".  As I read the story of Stephen, I am reminiscent of the similar response to Jesus' testimony as he walked this earth - there were always pockets of people wanting to "shut him down".  Truth convicts - it makes us uncomfortable.  Many cannot handle the truth - so instead of embracing the conviction, they seek to silence the voice that brings it.

As Stephen stood before the High Council, they found they could not take their eyes off him (Acts 6:15).  There is something dynamic about a life on fire for Jesus.  There is a radiance of the presence of God that captures the attention of even the unbelieving.  I laugh at the question they pose to Stephen: "What do you have to say for yourself?"  At that, Stephen begins to open the Word of God to them.  He did not "defend" himself - but rather, he let the Word of God speak volumes more than he could ever speak in his own defense.

At the end of it all, he speaks the words that cut to the core of the hearts of those who look to silence him - "And you continue, so bullheaded! Calluses on your hearts, flaps on your ears! Deliberately ignoring the Holy Spirit, you're just like your ancestors."  Bullheaded, calloused hearts, and ears that just will not hear.  Ignorant to the move of the Holy Spirit occurring all around them.  Just like your ancestors.  Ouch!  God had spoken similar words on many occasions to the nation of Israel - reminding them that if they would turn their hearts to him, forsaking the ways of the culture around them, and seek him with all their hearts, he'd restore them and make them whole as a nation.

This time, the words produced a reaction that was similar to the reaction of the crowd the day Jesus was crucified - hissing, violent words with riotous behavior.  The crowds did not know what to do with the conviction they felt - so they reacted as so many do - in anger.  Anger is often an attempt to cover over whatever points out our weakness.  Their response was to attempt to silence what he said - if not by their voices - then with their actions.  They drug him outside the city and stoned him.  All because he spoke the truth!

The story does not end there - God gets the last word!  Stephen saw heaven opened - he beheld the radiance of God's glory and it was evident on Stephen's face.  It says that as the "rocks rained down" from his attackers, he lifted his eyes to heaven and beheld the face of God.  In the midst of "rocks raining down" on us, would that be our response?  In beholding the face of God, he gives his very breath to God and in his dying words, he asks God to overlook the sin of this crowd.  He petitions God, "Don't blame them for their sin."  Nope, this is not a natural response of a man being stoned to death.  This is definitely a response that stems from a heart of compassion - a heart made pliable through the touch of the Holy Spirit.  

Forgiveness is only truly possible to those who recognize the value of the forgiveness they have received in Christ.  His testimony was great in all the "work" he did in his local church.  His life spoke volumes in the "deeds" of caring for the poor.  His teaching was "spot on" when he opened the Word to share the truths within.  But...what speaks the loudest is his ability to forgive even when his offender did not seek forgiveness!  Stephen left a legacy.  His legacy was that of forgiveness.  Not a bad legacy to leave, huh?