“While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he fell to his knees and cried out, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he fell asleep [i.e. he died]. And Saul was there, giving approval to his death.”
~Acts 7:59-60 (NIV).
Wow, so much meaning packed into two terse little verses! Forgiveness, justice (and injustice), judgment, betrayal, deceit in sin, martyrdom, regrettable action and a very messy ancient death. Death by stoning was the appropriate penalty (Lev. 24:14) for what Stephen’s murderers thought he’d done—blasphemed God. Little did they know or accept, Stephen was actually heralding the New Covenant.
And this was to become a crucial moment also for Saul (who later in Acts 13:9 became known also as Paul, the apostle). Can you imagine how potentially confusing it must have been for him (pre-conversion) to watch a man being stoned crying out, forgiving those stoning him? He must have thought, ‘Just who was this “Lord” Jesus?’
But, this little passage is about Jesus and the power of forgiveness under him and the Holy Spirit indwelt in Stephen—and in all of us who’re saved.
How else would someone do something as self-sacrificing as they died?
And this is what everyone needs: powers of forgiveness in challenging times, and inspiration that those who’ve gone before have even forgiven in such dire circumstances. Indeed, Stephen was merely following Jesus’ own forgiving of his oppressors (Luke 23:34) when he was crucified.
What can we learn from Jesus and Stephen?
One thing is we cannot judge people, usurping God’s power of judgment over these people who’ll no doubt wrong us. By distancing ourselves from passing judgment as acts of retribution against those who wrong us, we create peace within and space in our hearts for compassion, and the opportunity for God’s Spirit to work in us, helping us to forgive. This is only something that the Holy Spirit can genuinely cause—it’s not of ourselves at all.
Forgiveness is an impossible challenge to us until we accept it’s a gift, from the Holy Spirit.
So, not being so quick to condemn people is actually a very pragmatic tactic for forgiveness, a sense of cooperation with the Holy Spirit—together in unison, forgiveness is hence enabled.
Faith is an unquestionable component. This is why everyone needs the saving power of Jesus in their lives; not least of which to cope with the wrongs done against us, as we too wronged God—and were forgiven!
© 2010 S. J. Wickham.