His death was, to say the least, unexpected. He was young, and had just recently become a follower of Jesus. The church leaders had recognized his dedication and commitment, and had asked him to take care of the widows’ ministry. Of all people, why did God allow this happen to him?
He was very dedicated, and his ministry did not stop with serving food to the widows. He was faithful to share the Gospel of Jesus everywhere. God used him and blessed him, and even gave him some miraculous powers. He became known as a man full of faith, and full of the Holy Spirit. He was a great young leader in the struggling church.
Yet, his life was suddenly and tragically cut short. Because of his strong faith and his powerful witness, he had become a target of a group of men who hated Christians who were looking for a way to stop the spread of the Gospel in Jerusalem. These men picked a fight with Stephen. When they could not stand against his wisdom, they arranged for some false witnesses to go before the religious authorities and accuse Stephen of blasphemy.
The men agitated the crowd, and when they turned violent, the religious leaders gave orders to have Stephen stoned to death. As he died, he looked up to heaven and cried,“Father, do not hold this sin against them.”
The first question usually asked in the wake of a tragedy is, “Why?” In Stephen’s case, the answer is simple. God used his death to bring others to the saving knowledge of Jesus. Stephen’s death affected Christianity in profound, world-changing ways.
First, in the crowd that day, were many people who hated Christians. One particular young man, did not throw stones, but watched, with the tormentors’ robes at his feet, in complete favor of the incident. That young man’s name was Saul. That same Saul took a journey later, intending to arrest and kill more Christians, but had a life-changing conversion while traveling on the road to Damascus. It is easy to imagine the words of Stephen impacting the conscience of Saul that day – ” Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” and “Lord do not hold this sin against them.”
Second and perhaps most importantly, was what happened to the entire church as a direct result of Stephen’s death. Up until that point, the church did not go outside of Jerusalem to share the message of the Gospel – even though Jesus told them they would be His witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the remotest parts of the earth, they had not left Jerusalem. Stephen’s death changed everything. In Acts 11:19 says, “Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch . . .”
Antioch became the missionary center of the first century church. It was from here Paul, Barnabas, Silas and John Mark would begin their church planting journeys.
God used the death of Stephen to scatter the church. His death was not in vain. Other than the resurrection of Christ, no other event helped to shape the character and direction of the churches in the first century.
Historical evidence seems to indicate that the church experiences more growth during times persecution and martyrdom than in times of peace and prosperity. Today, the church is growing exponentially in the parts of the world where opposition and persecution are the greatest.
James the Apostle said, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking nothing.” (James 1:2-4)
In those moments when you ask why, or when you feel God has allowed you to suffer unjustly, remember every experience in life is an opportunity to learn more about your Heavenly Father, more about yourself, and more about His plan for your life.
We must remember, God’s purpose for our lives has little or nothing to do with our personal safety or comfort. In fact, Paul reveals in his letter to the Philippians that suffering is part of our calling in Christ. “For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake.”(Philippians 1:29)