Acts 6.8-15, 7.54-60
The early chapters of Acts are filled to bursting with the extraordinary and compelling experiences of the early church. As previous devotionals have explored, there are sermons, healings, miracles, arrests, judgement, even some church admin. And in amongst that little lot, thousands upon thousands of people coming to put their faith in Jesus. As we hit chapters 6 and 7, the action slows slightly and we take a longer look at one particular person – Stephen.
As you’ll have heard yesterday, Stephen was one of the seven men chosen to oversee the daily distribution of food. This was in order that the twelve disciples might be able to devote their time to teaching the word of God rather than waiting on tables. The other six men – Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus – don’t appear again in scripture. We don’t hear of their behaviour, their accomplishments or their walks with God. Stephen, on the other hand, has two chapters devoted to his story. And what a story it is!
We’re told that Stephen was a godly man. He was full of faith, grace and power and he did great signs and wonders amongst the people. He clearly spoke openly of Jesus because his words led to him being dragged before the council, being falsely testified against and, ultimately, being stoned to death. Perhaps not quite what was in the ‘waiting on tables’ job description.
What struck me in reading this passage was how incredibly familiar it all felt. An innocent man speaking boldly of God’s salvation plan yet being unfairly treated by people who should have known better, false witnesses stirred up, a brutal execution and such grace and forgiveness in the face of it all. How neatly Stephen’s footsteps sit in the path walked by Jesus. He refuses to compromise – giving a stonking sermon that tracks the history of the Jewish people before giving a scathing rebuke to his stiff-necked hearers – and he remains calm in the face of certain death. He sees into heaven, with his Lord and Saviour returning his gaze, and then gives his spirit to Jesus, dying with forgiveness on his lips.
I wonder if when Stephen accepted the role assigned to him by the disciples, he saw it playing out like this? Would he have imagined that his faithful obedience in word and deed would lead to his becoming the first Christian martyr, that this would have led to the scattering of the apostles and therefore the wider spread of the Gospel. Could he have imagined that the young man who was watching the stoning, , at that time called Saul, would be fired up to persecute the church more violently and that this would lead to an encounter with Jesus, a dramatic conversion and a life lived in service of the Gospel as the apostle Paul? Would he have believed that 2000 years later, we would be reading of his sacrifice?
It’s so easy, isn’t it, to think that our lives are insignificant. Whether we work for a church or a secular organisation or in another sphere altogether – in the home, as a student, the list is endless – we can fall into the trap of thinking that our actions are too small to be important. The decisions I make, the way I choose to live, the actions I take, the conversations I have: do any of these really matter? Today’s passage gives us a resounding yes. Regardless of where and how we are called to serve God, like Stephen, we can be sure that we are empowered by the Holy Spirit. Mercifully, it’s unlikely that our stories will have the same conclusion as Stephen’s, but we are called to emulate him as he emulates Christ – speaking boldly of the Gospel, loving those who persecute us and choosing, determining, to lift our eyes to the one who loves us, confident that when our final day comes, he will be ready to receive our spirit.
So, this week, when it feels like we’re a negligible dot on the surface of the big wide world, let’s strive to remember that God chooses to use dots like us. Let’s trust that we play a crucial part in God’s work and that He will empower us to walk faithfully in the footsteps of our Lord and Saviour.
Heavenly Father, thank you that however insignificant we may feel, we hold great significance in your eyes. Thank you for loving us and for involving us in your story. May we serve you faithfully and passionately in the power of your Spirit and give us the strength and grace to live and speak as Jesus would. In His holy name,