“As the Father has sent me,” Jesus told His disciples, “so I send you” (John 20:21 KJV). To be a messenger of Jesus means to face the same challenges and rejection that He faced.
Stephen was one of seven men selected to serve as a bridge between the Greek-speaking “Hellenists” and the rest of the church. These seven men were also from Greek background, so they “fit right in.” What the disciples were to the whole church, these seven were to the Greeks.
Acts 6:8-15 And Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people. 9 Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), and of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of those from Cilicia and Asia, rose up and disputed with Stephen. 10 But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking. 11 Then they secretly instigated men who said, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” 12 And they stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him and seized him and brought him before the council, 13 and they set up false witnesses who said, “This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, 14 for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us.” 15 And gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel.
The synagogue was a local house of prayer and learning. If the temple gave the Jews a sense of spiritual unity, the synagogue gave them a sense of spiritual diversity. In Stephen’s day, there were roughly 400 synagogues operating in Jerusalem alone—each with its own unique flavor. The synagogue mentioned here was run by “Freedmen,” most likely founded by former slaves or prisoners of war.
The Jews were threatened by the early Christians. The Jews enjoyed an uneasy peace with Rome. Jesus had tugged at the threads of the social fabric. Now His followers threatened to unravel it entirely—unless, of course, they could be stopped.
When their arguments could gain no traction (v.11), they turned to rumor. They accused Stephen of saying that Jesus would destroy the temple—the centerpiece of Jewish religious and national life. The religious leaders had probably heard Jesus predict the temple’s destruction (John 2:19), so there was enough truth here for the lie to be believable. Still, Jesus never said that He would destroy the temple. The rumor was designed to make Stephen look unspiritual and unpatriotic.
Do the details of Stephen’s trial sound at all familiar? They might remind you of Jesus’ trial before the Jewish leadership. As Christians, we follow a Savior who was misunderstood, mocked, then executed. How did you expect your life to turn out?
Ask the average person what the world could do without—what do you think they’d say? The answers would almost certainly include “religion.” Extremism is dangerous. No one wants to be a religious fanatic. Christianity is increasingly being defined by its opponents—recast as an intellectually backward, sexually repressive, morally regressive band of homophobes. Just like the lie told of Stephen, it doesn’t have to be true—it only has to be believable.
But if the gospel is true, we need not fear such challenges. Why? Because Christ’s sacrifice clothes us in His righteousness. We have God’s approval—who else’s do we need? This tells us at least three things about living in a hostile world:
- Our reputation is secure. Because of the gospel, God labels me “righteous.” What does it matter, then, if others label me a “fanatic?” Who I am in the world’s eyes doesn’t change who I am in God’s eyes.
- The gospel gives us the power to offend others, if that’s what they need. The gospel is offensive to an unbelieving world(Galatians 5:11). It makes us uncomfortable to make others uncomfortable. But if I have God’s approval, I don’t need to fear the consequences of sharing my faith with outsiders.
- Christ wins. Jesus has already been through this before. He conquered sin and the grave. His resurrection tells us that no matter how bad things get, it’s not the end of the story. He really will make all things new.
The gospel gives us the confidence to follow Christ in a hostile world. Therefore, let us pray that like Stephen, we can pray for boldness and confidence in sharing our faith with our world.