Worthy to Suffer
Persecution is part of being a follower of Jesus. He was “despised and rejected by men” (Isaiah 53). As His followers, we not only know the “power of His resurrection,” but also the “fellowship of His sufferings” (Philippians 3:10).
Stephen was a respected man in his community, filled with the Holy Spirit, wise, and one through whom miracles and wonders were manifest. Yet, the truth he spoke was fiercely rejected, resulting in his arrest and eventual death by stoning.
Many people reject truth because they don’t want to face their own sins. They claim morality and justice, but only that which permits them to be the judge and determiner. Since the Garden of Eden, human nature is to “be like God,” determining and defining good and evil. In America, idolatry begins with “I” – in more ways than one.
Therefore, those who claim Jesus Christ as the only source of truth are labeled “exclusive” and “intolerant.” Spoken words of biblical truth are considered “hate speech.” Followers of Jesus are pressured to privatize their faith, while others parade their beliefs proudly.
[Note: Regretfully, there are a few followers of Jesus whose speech and attitude truly are hate-filled and arrogant, not reflecting the character of Jesus. Perhaps they are immature and not yet discipled, or hard-hearted and legalistic. Either way, hateful attitudes and spiteful actions are displeasing to the Lord and can be destructive to the testimony of Jesus. Still, many sincere and humble followers of Jesus are targeted and persecuted, simply because of their faith in and proclamation of Jesus Christ.]
Followers of Jesus will be persecuted. How then should we respond? Stephen sets the bar pretty high with his Christ-like response.
“Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul.
And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”
And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.”
Acts 7:58-60 ESV
Like Jesus, Stephen willingly gave his life.
Like Jesus, Stephen willingly forgave his persecutors.
Like Jesus, Stephen’s death served to give others new life. Did you notice that Saul was there, consenting to Stephen’s death? Think about the impact Stephen made in his life. Saul was educated, religious, and passionate about justice, yet he was actually an enemy of God. He would have known the story of Jesus and heard the details about His crucifixion. Now, standing in front of Stephen, watching him being stoned to death, Saul would have seen the similarities between Jesus and Stephen. But the greatest impact would have occurred when Stephen looked out toward his persecutors, and maybe stared directly into Saul’s eyes, and said, “Father. forgive them.”
That moment had to have been sealed in Saul’s mind and heart. Not long after that event, Luke tells us that Paul had a personal encounter with Jesus that transformed his life – and our world – forever. Stephen’s persecution was a part of Saul’s transformation.
Perhaps your words of testimony are being rejected. Maybe you’ve been marginalized, threatened, or even persecuted for your faith. The worldly mindsets and philosophies around us seek to box us in and keep us quiet. But know this – your testimony, both verbalized in words and visualized in action, is planting seeds of faith, which will grow and produce a harvest of souls for God’s kingdom.
Following Jesus is not an easy path, but it is a worthy one. This is why many believers in the early church had this to say about their persecution: “I was counted worthy to suffer for the One who suffered for me.”
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