26 December 2014

Acts 7:51-60

“While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he died.” (vv. 59-60)

Psalm: Psalm 13


Today commemorates the death of Stephen, the first martyr from among Jesus' followers. He has been falsely accused of blasphemy "against Moses and God" (Acts 6:11). This passage comes from the end of Stephen's speech of defence, after he has taken his hearers through the history of God's relationship with Israel, using the stories of Abraham, Joseph and Moses, and an account of the establishment of the temple.

In this way, he reminds his accusers of what they owe to God, by way of faithfulness and obedience, before turning the accusation back on them. We are invited to recognise that they are in fact the blasphemers, while Stephen is a true prophet and follower of Christ. In effect, they stand in fulfilment of the line of rebellion which saw those killed who foretold the coming of the Messiah, as they have gone as far as to kill the Messiah himself.

Following this history, the implications of the charge of being "stiff-necked" or stubborn, in verse 51, would surely not be lost on the religious leaders. The same term is used of those who have turned from God in the wilderness, to worship the golden calf (Exodus 33:3, 5). Neither would they miss the sting in the insult, "uncircumcised in heart and ears" (v. 51). Those Stephen is addressing may be physically circumcised, as a mark of their participation in God's covenant, but he argues that in their thoughts and willingness to hear God, they may as well not be.

In contrast, Stephen implicitly aligns himself not only with the circumcised, who hear and obey God, but with the prophetic line, who have consistently challenged Israel's unfaithfulness and consistently been persecuted for their trouble. His death will, in effect, prove his innocence - and his accusers' guilt - of the charges against him. Of course, the accusers are unlikely to see it this way!

To Ponder

  • Stephen's calm composure in the face of his opponents' violent anger, his prophetic vision of heaven (recalling the vision of the Son of Man in Daniel 7:13) and his dying words (recalling the death of Jesus, Luke 23:34, 46) all stand in a tradition of accounts of martyrdom. Such accounts were meant to inspire the early Christians in the event of persecution. It presents an ideal of Christian virtue. Such ideals have varied through history; what does a model, virtuous Christian look like today, in the eyes of the Church or society? And what does it look like in your eyes?
  • The word 'martyr' comes from the Greek for a witness, but has come to mean more specifically someone who dies for their beliefs. In the hope and expectation that you will not be called upon to face death for your faith, how can you be an effective witness to the self-giving love of Christ?
  • The young man called Saul, of course, went on to be an effective missionary and faithful witness - in the end probably also facing execution. What does this say to you about redemption? What about justice?

Bible notes author

The Revd Catrin Harland

Catrin Harland is the Methodist chaplain to the University of Sheffield, where she spends her time discussing life and faith with students and staff, aided by coffee and cake. She is passionate about equipping young adults to discover and live out their calling in the Church and the world.