The very early church had a problem. The “Grecian Jewish” believers perceived that the Hebrew Jewish believers favored their own in caring for the widows. Today, we would immediately split off and form a new church, but the elders of the early church handled it differently. They listened, agreed, and then told the church to choose seven men to serve. (It’s interesting that they didn’t appoint the seven themselves but instead told the church to choose them.)
The seven they chose, Luke tells us in the book of Acts, were Stephen, Philip, Procurus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicholas of Antioch, a convert to Judaism. Stephen is specifically singled out as “a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit.” Of the other six, only Philip is ever mentioned again – Philip the Evangelist of Acts 8 and 21.
We don’t know any of Stephen’s background or even when he joined the church. He might have been one of those “thousands” who heard the disciples preaching in the temple courtyards and came to faith. We have the impression he was young, although that’s not explicitly stated.
A few verses later, Stephen is singled out again. Luke describes him as “ a man full of God’s grace and power, and did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people.” Luke, of course, is setting the stage for what is about to happen. Stephen makes a speech to the Sanhedrin, tells the truth, and is dragged out to be stoned. As he’s dying, he asks God to forgive his murderers.
Stephen’s death was one of the significant events of the early church: he was the first martyr; it was the start of the first persecution; the church was scattered into the surrounding territory; and it was a significant step into what eventual became the spread and triumph of Christianity on the Roman Empire.
And then there was Saul, who helped lead the persecution in Jerusalem, and did so well that he decided to carry the campaign to Damascus. And on the road to Damascus, Saul became Paul.
Several times in his epistles, Paul refers to his role as persecutor of the church. And I can’t help but think that the image of Stephen crying out to God to forgive his murderers must have been remembered by Paul every time he mentioned his role.
Both Stephen and Paul were forgiven. Stephen did not do the terrible things Paul did, but both were forgiven. Both experienced the ful measure of God’s grace.
As Andy Stanley points out in The Grace of God, grace is also poured out over us. It’s a kind of unruly, unpredictable thing, this grace of God, confounding our human notions of fairness. Whether we believe as a child and work our entire lives for the Lord, or sincerely accept faith on our deathbeds, the grace of God pours down.
Grace poured down on Paul; it poured down on Stephen. Believers might want to identify more with Stephen, but most of us more closely approximate Paul’s early experience.
It is something to grateful for, this grace that pours down. There’s nothing we do that can earn it. It just pours down.
Led by Jason Stasyszen and Sarah Salter, we’ve been discussing The Grace of God. To see more posts on this chapter, “Saved by Grace,” please visit Sarah at Living Betweenthe Lines.
Photograph by George Hodan via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.