A group of people was having bible study when the pastor came and joined them. By then, they were almost done with their study and decided to pose the pastor a question that had arisen. So they asked, “Why was Stephen martyred?” Many of you would have guessed that they were studying the Book of Acts and you might have completed yours. So if I may ask, “Why was Stephen martyred?” How would you answer? Several thoughts would probably come to mind when such a question is asked. Is the person asking because he wondered why Peter wasn’t martyred like Stephen in the earlier chapters when the apostle also spoke with boldness and courage like Stephen did? Is he asking because he feared he might end up like Stephen when he practises what the church is asking all to do, i.e. walk across the room? Is he asking simply because the question popped up during bible study and he couldn’t answer it? So why was Stephen martyred? And why wasn’t Peter? So here are my pastoral reflections from the DG meeting!
First of all, could it be that Peter was an apostle and so had greater power and faith than Stephen who was only a deacon? And so Peter was in a way untouchable! Agree? But Acts records for us clearly that Stephen was also full of faith and power and did great wonders and signs among the people like the apostles did (Acts 6:8). And his face was like the face of an angel when the people brought him to the council and he was full of the Holy Spirit and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God as he was about to be martyred (Acts 6:15; 7:55). Surely it has nothing to do with one being an apostle and the other a deacon. In fact the apostles were also delivered up to be martyred, each at their appointed time, all of them except for John. So it is wrong to think that one has greater power and immunity from danger and harm by virtue of his higher calling or appointment. So do not aspire for higher calling in order to possess greater anointing or special protection. The Holy Spirit looks at the heart, not the hat! You may laugh at me for saying this but I do know of people who subscribe to such theology. Let us instead, aspire to be faithful and courageous disciples of the gospel, whether as pastors, elders, deacons or otherwise.
What about their messages? What was the key difference between them? Peter’s messages in earlier chapters were basically about Jesus being the Messiah and the fulfilment of Scriptures, which the people were also looking for but not in Jesus. Stephen however wasn’t really preaching the gospel. He was attacking the people by exposing their misconstrued view of the faith that was passed down by their forefather Abraham and accusing them of becoming betrayers and murderers like their fathers. And so Stephen was martyred! To put it in the context of a multi-religious society here in Singapore, it is like sharing the gospel with a friend of a different faith (as in Peter’s case) and attacking or ridiculing that friend for his belief in that faith (as in Stephen’s case). We are free to walk across the room and share the gospel with others in this land and we wouldn’t be martyred for doing so but we should not think that we can therefore challenge their beliefs and behave like Christian militants. So do not be surprised if you are ‘martyred’ for doing so. Our commission is to preach the gospel and the truth shall set them free.
So does it mean that Stephen was therefore wrong in speaking against the people?Of course not! First of all, let us remember that Stephen himself was a Hellenized Jew who had believed in Jesus. He was not a Gentile and an outsider to Judaism such that he was speaking against something which he had no part of and therefore no reason to. To put it in our context, it is as if the church has gone astray in her teachings and practices and godly men from within the church come forward to speak against it. This is something we ought to do as part of the body and we have no reason to remain silent. But what if it involves other churches? Should we make it our business to go around and speak against them? What do you say? As a pastor, I have often been asked this question, especially in the light of the current trial involving City Harvest. What should I say?
Well, let us also remember that Stephen did not invite himself to the council to intentionally stir up the people. He was set up by those who could not withstand his wisdom. And he said those things regarding Moses, the law and the temple because those were the charges that were fabricated against him. Stephen was merely defending himself against falsified charges. To put it simply, it was circumstances that led Stephen to appear before the council, a consequence as a result of his faithful work for the kingdom. It might look tragic to others but it was clearly a divine call for the deacon as he gazed into heaven and saw his Lord. So my humble and honest answer to the question is this: if there is a need to speak against another church, the Holy Spirit will lead the right person to go and say the things that are right before God. And when we are faithful servants like Stephen was, you or I may well be the person God chooses. How will we know? Well, God has his ways. And until then, let us be watchful so that God will not send someone to come and speak against us instead!
August 17, 2014