For Sunday, December 5th:
The Layman Who Jump-started the Early Church
Why do I say this?
Saint Stephen was just an ordinary believer, who seems to have been in the upper room on the day of Pentecost.
Luke tells us that when the apostles needed someone to handle the duties in the soup kitchen, they chose seven believers. All seven are mentioned by name, but Stephen is the only one who has a little extra information attached to his name; “A man filled with faith and The Holy Spirit”. (Acts 6:5) and also: “A man full of God’s grace and power, who performed many miracles and signs among the people”. It seems to me that the only way this happens is in the upper room on the Day of Pentecost.
Everyone seems to have liked Stephen except for a group of Fundamentalist Greek Jews, who belonged to a group called The Synagogue of Freed Slaves”. They tried to debate Stephen, but The Holy Spirit had given him so much wisdom, that he refuted them on every point. This infuriated them, so they spread some lies about his teachings, and got him in trouble with the Sanhedrin.
When the Jewish leaders questioned Stephen, he held nothing back, as he severely scolded them (and their ancestors) for killing Jesus, persecuting every prophet of old who foretold the coming of the Messiah, and continually thwarting the work of God.
Well, this wouldn’t do, so they hauled him outside the gates of the city and began stoning him. Rather than cower in fright, Stephen – filled with the Holy Spirit – shouted that he saw a vision of Jesus Christ, seated at the right hand of The Father. Now they were really mad, but the more they stoned him, the more he was filled with faith, and his final words were “Lord, don’t charge them with this sin.”
Among those Jews who were stoning Stephen, stood a devout Pharisee name Saul, who watched their coats, and agreed with what they were doing. Although he would go on to perform his own fierce persecutions of these “people of The Way”, you can’t help but wonder if he didn’t admire Stephen’s courage and faith. Eventually Saul had his own encounter with Christ, and displayed the same boldness that Stephen did, as he preached to the Jews and Gentiles later on. And the gospel spread outside the walls of Jerusalem. But there’s more to this story:
When Jesus ascended to The Father, He told the apostles to “wait in Jerusalem until they received “Power from on high”. But THEN, they were told to spread the gospel outside Jerusalem – to all of Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the world. As you read through Acts Chapters 2 through 6, you get the sense that more than a few days had passed from Pentecost to the stoning of Stephen. There were a LOT of new believers by now, they had formed their own community, they were receiving offerings from some pretty well-off Jewish leaders, they were preaching every Sabbath in the temple, and the new Church even had established its own “hierarchy” if you will…apostles, elders, deacons, etc. This undoubtedly took more than a few weeks. And yet, we are told that the community was STILL largely confined to the city of Jerusalem.
Until the very day of Stephen’s martyrdom. Acts 8:1-2,4. Tells us “A great wave of persecution broke out on that very day, sweeping over the Church in Jerusalem; and all the believers EXCEPT THE APOSTLES were scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria. And the believers who were scattered preached the Good News about Jesus wherever they went!”
So the early Church seems to have failed to heed the words of Christ, until persecution forced them to become bold in proclaiming the gospel…just as Saint Stephen had.
And these weren’t even the apostles. Just ordinary believers like you and me.
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