God’s Power for God’s Purpose
Stephen, the Man God Crowned
Dr. Jim Denison
I recently taught a course titled, “The Faith of the Presidents.” Week three was devoted to Abraham Lincoln, the consensus choice of historians as the greatest president in our nation’s history. Many believe that his genius and courage were more responsible for the preservation of the Union than any other single factor.
Given the veneration extended to Mr. Lincoln across the generations since his tragic assassination, I was surprised to learn of the vilification he faced during his lifetime—from critics in the North. I expected to find Southern opposition to his leadership and character, but was not prepared for the degree of persecution he experienced from those on his side of the conflict.
For instance, the Baltimore Sun editorialized on his actions between his election and his inauguration: “Had we any respect for Mr. Lincoln, official or personal, as a man, or as President-elect of the United States, his career and speeches on his way to the seat of government would have cruelly impaired it. We do not believe the Presidency can ever be more degraded by any of his successors, than it has been by him, even before his inauguration.”
In 1864, the New York Herald called the president “joke incarnated, his election a very sorry joke, and the idea that such a man as he should be the President of such a country as this, a very ridiculous joke.” An editorial in a Northern newspaper for New Year of 1864 opined, “The people of the North owe Mr. Lincoln nothing but eternal hatred and scorn. There are 500,000 new made graves; there are 500,000 orphans; there are 200,000 widows; there is a bottomless sea of blood; there is the Constitution broken; there are liberty and law—liberty in chains and in a dungeon; thieves in the Treasury, provost marshals in the seats of justice, butchers in the pulpit—and these are the things which we owe Mr. Lincoln.” And Henry Ward Beecher, one of the most respected and popular preachers of the day, characterized the president thus: “Not a spark of genius has he; not an element of leadership. Not one particle of heroic enthusiasm.”
Being right is no guarantee that we’ll being popular. Quite often the reverse is true. When we walk through the biblical Hall of Faith we find this summary at the end of the tour: “Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated—the world was not worthy of them” (Hebrews 11:36-38).
By now you may have seen Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. If so, you have witnessed the crucifixion portrayed more accurately than by any other film in history. Remember that the crowd shouted “Crucify him!” And know that the followers of this Christ will be persecuted as well.
With Stephen we learn how to stand up to opposition, how to defend our Lord no matter what happens to us. Where might you face persecution for your faith? What real or possible issues might you address? The stones thrown against you for your faith may be geological, social, or financial. But they will all be real. Here’s how to respond.
Face opposition for the right reasons (Acts 6:8-15)
Stephen, immediately upon his selection to “the Seven” (Acts 6:5; cf. 21:8), vindicated the choice of the people. He was “full of God’s grace and power” (v. 8a); “full” means “to be controlled by” or “submitted to.” He submitted himself to the gifts and power of the Holy Spirit, and became a conduit for his work. You and I are to do the same (Ephesians 5:18).
The result was “great wonders and miraculous signs among the people” (v. 8b). “Wonders” point perhaps to miraculous abilities, “signs” to miraculous actions. Perhaps the people witnessed wondrous power or revelatory conviction and wisdom in his preaching, teaching, and leadership; and “signs” through a healing ministry performed through him. His work was done “among the people,” providing public proof of the reality of the Spirit’s work in his life.
Such a widespread ministry would quickly lead to reaction by the Jerusalem authorities. This was precisely what they had tried to prevent with earlier arrests and warnings (Acts 4:18-21; 5:40). In their minds, the spiritual malignancy of the Christian faith was spreading and must be contained at all costs: “Opposition arose, however, from members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called)—Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia” (v. 9a).
The “Synagogue of the Freedmen” was a popular title for Jews who had earlier been freed from slavery. They had come to Jerusalem from a wide geographic spectrum: Cyrene in northern Africa; Alexandria in Egypt, second only to Rome in power and first in academic achievement and learning; the province of Cilicia in southeast Asia Minor (Turkey today), where Tarsus was located; and the province of Asia on the western coast of modern-day Turkey. Since this synagogue included those from Saul of Tarsus’s hometown, it is possible that he met with them. And that he participated as “these men began to argue with Stephen” (v. 9b). Such disputation was a principal way those in Jewish synagogues dealt with theological issues; the losing party was expected to cease its heretical actions.
In this case, the synagogue leaders “could not stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by which he spoke” (v. 10). So long as we work in the wisdom and Spirit of the Lord, our words will always be powerful and victorious. He will give us what to say when our faith is opposed—either through prior preparation or on-the-spot leadership (cf. Mark 13:11, “Whenever you are arrested and brought to trial, do not worry beforehand about what to say. Just say whatever is given you at the time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit”).