But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.
While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep. (New International Version)
Although I am a trained in biblical exegesis and hermeneutics (interpreting Scripture) I believe that most insights come from making simple observations about the text. So, I want to point out: Stephen was not martyred by the Romans, a religiously pagan group, nor Gentile people; he was martyred by those of his own ethnicity, by “God’s people.”
The religious authorities were more than just unhappy with Stephen. The Sanhedrin (the Jewish ruling council) were incensed with him, so mad that they were grinding their teeth at him. The council sincerely believed Stephen was a blasphemer of God, that what he was saying was so subversive and religiously radical, they could stone him to death with a clear conscience, as if this act were upholding God’s honor and God’s Law.
The result was not only the death of a humble man; it also sparked an intense persecution against the church which caused a new Christian diaspora (Acts 8:1-3). Many believers in Jesus found themselves as Christian refugees trying to eke out a living and worshiping Christ in foreign places.
I wish I could say the greatest opposition I’ve ever experienced as a Christian came from non-Christians who simply misunderstood and misinterpreted me. However, my most hurtful wounds have come from the hands of church folk, believing they were acting on God’s behalf by exacting an emotional martyrdom upon me with the stones of gossip, slander, backbiting, blame-shifting, and outright lying (and a few threats of violence).
Whenever I encounter persons who no longer attend church and have no intention of ever returning to any local congregation, I get it. I understand. Yet, although the church is sometimes like a woman of disrepute, I still love her, and will do whatever I can to edify her and not repay evil with evil.
Stoning a believer, either actually with physical rocks or virtually with verbal stones, is akin to persecuting Jesus himself. That’s because Christ so closely identifies with his people that it is as if he is a head, and his followers are a body – joined together in a vital union.
So, when Christ’s Body is subjected to what I call, “hermeneutical hubris,” in which one group of people insists there is only one way to interpret Scripture, and then uses their authority and structures of power to force compliance on another group, the result is persecution.
And that is precisely why Christians can abuse other Christians.
Rather than discerning that all Christians belong to God, one narrow-minded and small-hearted group excludes all other groups who disagree with them as blaspheming the name of Christ.
For example, insisting that a literal interpretation in the only means of understanding the Bible’s authority is to ignore and abuse the actual and real authority which exists with the Bible. I am in no way encouraging an “anything goes” type of approach to Holy Scripture that lets it say whatever you want it to say.
What I am saying is that the biblical writers themselves employed different methods of interpretation, as well as the early church fathers (which is one reason I hold to the interpretive guides of the ancient Christian creeds, i.e. The Apostles’ Creed and Nicene Creed).
Far too often, churches stick to a particular interpretation because they believe they are keeping biblical fidelity. This is many times born of a fear that Christendom will be lost, and society will sink into an abyss of egregious sin. The irony is that many churches are sinking into forms of abusive and ungracious behavior by fighting battles that Scripture does not call them to fight.
The binary thinking of “I’m right and you’re wrong” is not an approach you’ll find in God’s Holy Word.
Even if the Sanhedrin in Stephen’s day intended on upholding the holiness of their God and the rightness of their cause, the impact it had on the church was martyrdom, death, and diaspora.
Unfortunately, throughout Christian history, the tables have too often turned with Christians persecuting Jews. I myself would like to avoid being the persecutor. If I kill anything, may it be putting to death my own sin – because that is what the Bible calls me to do.
Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.
Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming.You used to walk in these ways, in the life you once lived. But now you must also rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips.
Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator. Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.
Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.
Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts. And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (Colossians 3:1-17, NIV)
Gracious God, as your Son humbled himself on this earth, so may your church walk continually in such humility that believers everywhere work together in unity for the sake of gospel of grace as a blessing to the world in the power of your Holy Spirit. Amen.