Stephen is an early martyr who is killed for standing firm in his faith. Persecution of Christians has never stopped! Let’s take a few moments and spotlight persecuted Christians and martyrs in today’s world. An excellent website for current information is Open Doors (opendoors.usa.org).
May we stand firm with those who are persecuted and with the families of those who are killed for their faith. According to Open Doors stats, today, 1 in 8 Christians world wide lives in a place with a high level of persecution, 260 million Christians. Open Doors website has a World Watch List in which you can read details about the top 50 countries… Different groups tally the numbers differently, but Open Doors, in my opinion, has a conservative number of about 4000 Christians killed each year because of their faith in Jesus Christ, or 11 every day. North Korea tops their list of the most persecutions. It’s estimated Christians are 300,000 strong in N.K. but many face violence, labor camps and death. No open Christian worship.
There are many Stephens in this world. His death in Acts should not surprise us. Or probably the opposite is true: may we never grow numb to news of persecution and death, may it never stop surprising us! Open Doors outlines a number of ways to get involved, including many resources to learn, or becoming an advocate for the persecuted church in your own church (that would be so awesome if somebody became our “expert”)… I was intrigued to find on the website stories of specific martyred Christians and providing a way for anyone to send a note. For our prayer time today, listen to one family’s story, then I’ve written a letter that each of us can sign and send….
January 29, 2020, was just another Wednesday, [NOTE: I was at Coffee Hour that day] like any other weekday for 52-year-old Francoise and her husband Reverend Batsemire-Ngulongo Yese, 67. They were traveling with their grandson to their farm outside of the town of Eringite in an area known as the “triangle of death” in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
Times are dangerous and complex in the DRC with dozens of militias terrorizing communities in eastern Congo where conflict rages. The couple and their family served God in this difficult area for many years. That day, Yese was singing along to a popular Swahili praise song, “Safari Bado,” a rhythmic melody about our spiritual journey:
On this safari we must stay humble,
not become complacent,
and use every opportunity we receive
to honor and worship God
as we come closer to meeting Him.
Never during this journey should we think we have arrived,
or as King Belshazzar,
the writing will be on the wall.
Little did Yese know his journey on earth would end that day. Captivated by the song and with the volume turned up, the couple and their grandson heard the gunshots but they were too close, she says, sitting on the mud floor of her traditional hut. She speaks exceptionally slow and in almost whispers–grief has taken its toll. “In that moment of panic, we thought it wise to hide in the bush in case the enemy was on the road,” Francoise says. “We hoped they would pass us.” After about 45 minutes, she and her grandson came out of hiding. They couldn’t find Yese.
Francoise informed the military about Yese’s disappearance. Two hours later, they received the tragic news: Soldiers had found a body almost two miles away, possibly Yese’s. A group set out to check and returned with his body. The soldiers explained that Yese had unknowingly hidden in an area the Allied Democratic Forces used as a shortcut. They shot him and finished him off with the very machete he was carrying to use at his farm.
Since his death, stress and grief have created physical suffering. Francoise says she now has hypertension, regular headaches and constant and severe stomach pain. Family members take turns sitting with her. When she’s alone, she weeps for her husband. “Her gaze appears far off while she talks,” says an Open Doors worker who visits with her, “as if she is caught in memories of when her husband was still alive.”
READ Letter written to Francoise and then PRAY
Last week we looked at Stephen’s witness as a man of faith. He was willing to die on the hill of declaring that Jesus is the living Lord. Today we look at what he said, which takes up most of Acts 7. I have an outline to guide…
In order to understand why Stephen’s words are so upsetting, look at the question he answers and the conclusions at the end. Acts 6:12-14 is the challenge. READ. They see Stephen undermining the traditions of the Jewish faith and importance of the temple. Stephen’s answer is to affirm they are correct because they are missing something.
What they got wrong, says Stephen, is that faith in God is a living faith; God cannot be contained in a box. Jesus is the fulfillment of everything they have believed from the beginning “God does not live in houses made by men” Stephen shouts in Acts 7:49. “You always resist the Holy Spirit” he insists in Acts 7:51. READ Acts 7:48-51. When he calls them stiff necked, surely they hear God’s pronouncement against the unbelieving Israelites when they were in the desert with Moses… Stephen is not acting like a good defendant; he’s a prosecutor who has turned the tables on them. A good defense is a powerful offense. circumcision; the point is that God ultimately wants the heart, no formality of faith…
Let’s walk through Stephen’s speech hitting a few high points. Stephen looks back at history showing how their own stories of faith contradict their rigid application. Over the years occasionally I’ve been told I’m hanging out with the wrong people…, it’s not hard to go point to Jesus to see who he hung out with… if our theology contradicts the example of Jesus, something has gone wrong…That’s what Stephen is doing. Stephen is being accused of disrespecting the Temple, so Stephen says, “what about God’s Holy Presence at the burning Bush…”
One of the crazy book ideas I have which I’ll never get to is to try and imagine we had no words of Jesus given to us, only his actions ~ I wonder how that would change our beliefs? Silly idea
1. True followers of God [will go] wherever God sends them. READ Acts 7:2-3. This is an important truth for us to practice… I cannot tell you what God’s will is for your life other than in a general sense…I can tell you the type of person he wants you to be…
2. We may know the destination God wants for us, but He [keeps] the roadmap. Summarize Acts 7:4-8. What S. is ultimately getting at is that the religious leaders have put God in box and limited him to control, but that was never the intention…God still has a plan for you and as you follow him there will be all sorts of unexpected twists
3. There is nothing new under the sun, including [disobedience]. READ Acts 7:9-10. Paul later expresses this truth when he writes, For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…. Rom. 3:23.
4. Nothing can stop God’s [purposes], including sin. Summarize Acts 7:11-16. That’s really good news for us… God isn’t dependent on Carl Crouse and/or SACC getting everything correct. God will work it all out to His glory in spite of us…. Why is Stephen threatening? Stephen is simply saying God will work out the salvation of each person who turns to Him in His way…. The religious leaders cannot control..
5. God’s greatest servants are [vulnerable, imperfect] . Summarize Acts 7:17-29. If Moses depended on forgiveness and grace on the path of serving God, we must allow ourselves the same grace. Young people, if you want to hear a surprising story, ask an older person who you assume is a perfect Christian about some of their past struggles. The accusers of Stephen aren’t allowing for any weakness in God’s servants but insisting on perfect righteousness. We do that to each other. The world does it to us too. A true servant understands…
6. [Holy Ground] is found wherever God is present. READ Acts 7:30-34. they are telling Stephen to not blaspheme Moses, but even shows humility and unworthiness. Holiness is wherever God is present. Years ago I was impacted by a paper Sally wrote about Holiness. Two ways to stay clean. Stay away from anything dirty, that is the Pharisee way. The Jesus way, cleanse everything you touch… the burning Bush, an epiphany of God’s presence, is far away from anything deemed Holy by the religious leaders standards…
7. God chooses [rejects]. READ Acts 7:35-36. I love rejects… Moses is a reject… it is not until he is sent a second time that the people’s eyes are opened….
8. Follow God even when you can’t see [evidence] of it. (Sounds Like Heb. 11:1) Summarize Acts 7:39-41. we get so impatient with God…. I honestly think idol making is a bigger problem than we realize in our world. Our golden calf may be more sophisticated than their’s, but the golden calf shows they craved something… many people give up on God too early …
9. God often allows us to suffer the consequences of our [own bad choices]. Acts 7:42-43. How often we blame God…
10. God is [everywhere] at all times… Summarize Acts 7:44-50. There was nothing wrong with the temple, they just grew to think the temple was the be all end all… our understanding/experiences are limited… There will always be people who have experiences of God beyond our experiences…
So why is Stephen stoned for this? Presumption? Fear? So set in their ways that their eyes are blind? IMHO, They are clearly shaky in their faith. There is truth in what I heard one person preach long ago: “Those who yell the loudest are shakiest in their faith!” Stephen was stoned to death, because he dared to challenge their thinking? Really?
In my heart, I don’t really know why Stephen’s defense would constitute a sentence of death. I do my best to listen to other people’s heart felt convictions. Sometimes I agree and sometimes I don’t, but I can honestly say I’ve never had any desire to kill somebody who disagrees with me. Maybe spending a lifetime in relatively small churches does that… I honestly don’t know…
What is so threatening from Christians today that 11 a day are killed for their faith in Jesus Christ? It still makes no sense. Yet it happens everyday. In spite of threats at so many different levels, stay firm in your faith in Jesus Christ, remain open to the leading of His Spirit, be willing to take a stand on the hill of faith for which you would be willing to die. Pray for those that live in constant fear, for they are our Christian brothers and sisters. While we may never face literal death threats, I believe we still need to be willing to die for our faith, go places we might not choose.
I want to close with one more thought. It’s a technical term I want you to learn in studying the Bible. I call it the old switch-a-roo! We read the story of Stephen and we want to be like him. Especially us good old independent Americans. We may not be that strong in our faith, but clearly Stephen is the hero and we hope we can be like Stephen.
Switch places with the religious leaders, that’s the switch-a-roo. the ones trying to hold on. Much of the world sees me closer to the bad guys of this scripture as a pastor of an established church. There are those that see me as threatening because I don’t endorse every current trend. As you grow in your faith and take a firm stand for Christ, the world will see you as the unbending religious leader. As soon as you say, The Bible is the Word of God, many will think you are narrow minded. This is why Stephen is such a powerful example firm in his convictions, willing to die for what he professes, yet he is free in the Spirit of God.
You/I may be closer than I’d like to the religious leaders, but that really doesn’t matter if we are growing in our faith and looking to Stephen as our example knowing God cannot be contained in a box and me may take me places and use me in ways I never thought possible. Discipline and freedom are two sides of the same coin in following the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.