Summary: Does God care when His people suffer? Does He desert them in their sorrow? A message to encourage the suffering saint by redirecting our gaze to the Master in our sorrow.
“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.
“And Saul approved of his execution.
“And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.
“Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word.”
When we long for comfort and consolation, we too often discover that few comforters are available. In our hour of darkness we are prone to cry out, “Where is God? Has He forgotten me?” Where is God when I hurt? No doubt the question intruded into the mind of persecuted Christians. It was the unvoiced thought attending every step of expatriate pilgrims. It was the silent spectre observing the dissolution of families as children were torn from their parents. It was the question as believers were tortured and killed. Where is God now? Where is God when I hurt?
The first martyr was Stephen, a believer characterised as “full of faith and of the Holy Spirit” [ACTS 6:5]. This godly man was accused out of jealousy and charged with heinous sin against the Lord God of Heaven. Hailed before the religious leaders he defended himself so ably that he could not be answered. Nor did he cease his defence of the Faith with an apologia, but he confronted the sin of those who had indicted him.
“You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him—you who have received the law that was put into effect through angels but have not obeyed it” [ACTS 7:51-53].
Such pointed exposure of sin infuriated those whom he exposed. As they raged, God drew back the curtain separating time and eternity, and Stephen saw what his persecutors could not hope to see. “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’” [ACTS 7:55, 56].
An enraged mob, with the blessing of religious leaders, mercilessly murdered one of God’s choice servants. One of the instigators of the mob action was a young rabbi named Saul; he guarded the clothing of those who stoned Stephen. As the stones pelted Stephen’s body, he prayed for his tormentors, “Lord do not hold this sin against them” [ACTS 7:59]. How precious are the words inspired by the Spirit that describe his transition to glory: “When he had said this, he fell asleep.” With that the brave deacon died.
Stephen’s death signalled the beginning of the first great persecution against the Church of our Lord Jesus Christ. The fury of the persecution was so great that all the saints, with the exception of the Apostles, were scattered throughout the land. The Body was struck with such ferocity that it must have seemed that nothing would survive. Though the primary story speaks of the Church, there is a secondary theme interwoven throughout the account which Doctor Luke provides. The divine account simply states that “godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him” [ACTS 8:2].
THE EVENTS OF THE DAY — We could substitute at this point virtually any of the great persecutions for the cause of Christ. Among those awful hurts which have been visited upon the churches are such insults as the invasion of the Netherlands by Alva, the Spanish Inquisition and the destruction of the churches of Waldois by the Pope’s henchmen. Students of the history of the Faith will recall the drowning of the Anabaptists by the Lutherans and Calvinists and the frightful persecution of Baptists in Virginia by the Church of England, as well as the banishment of dissenters by the Congregationalists in New England. Conscientious Christians have been mercilessly persecuted because they are Christians since the days of the first churches. To this day, there are vast regions where adherence to the Christian Faith brings the threat of death.
Believers are taught to “mourn with those who mourn” [ROMANS 12:15b]. Have you felt the pangs of hunger when Vietnamese believers are starved? Have you experienced your heart being torn from your breast as the child of a Sudanese mother is taken from her to be raised in the home of a Muslim? Have you cringed at the lash on the back of a Chinese believer or felt the hot blush of shame resulting as you were paraded naked before the leering eyes of wicked men?