The twelve apostles delegated the pastoral duties of the Jerusalem church to seven men who became known as deacons. In the book of Acts, we are told that among them was Stephen, who was “full of faith and of the Holy Spirit” and “performed great wonders and signs”. Traditionalists began arguing with him but “could not stand up against the wisdom the Spirit gave him as he spoke”. In response, they resorted to violence, a tactic which religious extremists use to this day.
Stephen did not mince his words when he was brought before the Sanhedrin, the council which had condemned Jesus to death and sentenced Peter and John to be flogged. He accused them of having the same spirit as their forefathers, who resisted the Holy Spirit and killed the prophets. As they began gnashing their teeth at him he said:
“I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
Stephen’s last words were a prayer for forgiveness for his murderers. After this, the young Saul of Tarsus, who witnessed the stoning, made it his job to persecute the followers of Jesus. However, the gracious words of Stephen must have echoed in his subconscious and opened a way for Jesus to reveal himself to Saul on his way to Damascus. After Saul was converted, persecution abated.
“Then the church … enjoyed a time of peace and was strengthened. Living in the fear of the Lord and encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers.”
After this Herod persecuted the church. He had James killed by the sword and would have done the same to Peter, had not the Lord’s angel led him out of jail. But “because Herod did not give praise to God, an angel of the Lord struck him down, and he was eaten by worms and died.
But the word of God continued to spread and flourish.”
Written by Piet van Staden