- Just like their fathers
- Always resisting the Holy Spirit
What can we learn from this story?
Stephen’s story reveals some hard lessons about evangelism that can help us consider our testimony today. Read Acts 7 here before jumping into the points below for a refresher on Stephen’s speech.
1. Sometimes We Need to Share the Whole StoryWhen I was twenty years old, I moved to the island of Cyprus. For nine months, I shared my faith with Muslims. During that time, I found the need to share the story of Jesus within the larger narrative of the Bible. For example, at a café outside of Eastern Mediterranean University, I drank tea one day with eight others. They afforded me the opportunity to share the story of Christ as the one who fulfills the Scriptures. As I tied together the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and how they related to the story of Jesus, I realized:
I need to know the story better.
After experiencing epiphanies like this in Cyprus, I returned to my studies at Ozark Christian College with a renewed passion for understanding the “grand metanarrative,” as Tony Twist and Mihai Malancea call it in their book by that name.
Stephen offers a great example of sharing the story of Jesus in the context of the larger story of Scripture.
He did this to display his orthodox theological framework because the Jewish religious leaders had accused him of speaking against both the temple and the law. Why is this a “hard” lesson in evangelism? Because telling stories is hard—let alone telling important and historical stories in an engaging, contextual way. That’s not to mention telling a story in front of an antagonistic crowd. And it’s especially hard today because people don’t have time for stories anymore. It’s difficult to learn, understand, and retell the stories of God to those who don’t necessarily agree. Stephen’s audience didn’t want to hear it, and most people in my experience don’t really want to hear the story of God either. But sometimes, we should tell the long version. Stephen’s story shows us this, and this means we might need to tell the long story even when people don’t want to hear it.
2. Sometimes Our Words Will Fall on Deaf Ears“Most people don’t actually want to be discipled,” Billy Henderson said to me as we drove from Paducah to Lexington, Kentucky. That has been true in my experience since he first told me that when I was in my late twenties. He wasn’t trying to dissuade me from making disciples; he was trying to save me from the disappointment I’d face as I sought to make disciples during my life. Here’s the hard truth: If the goal of evangelism is to make disciples, not merely converts, then most people will not want to hear it. Our words, however, will sometimes fall on deaf ears. That’s what Stephen’s story shows us.
Stephen preached to deaf ears.
Consider that he was full of the Holy Spirit when he did so. That means that sometimes, like with the prophets of old, our words will fall on deaf ears. This is tough news—and tough to do. But we must be prepared to preach to deaf ears if God asks us. It’s also hard to hear this lesson because we want to be effective. Yet sometimes “effectiveness” can’t be measured by results, at least immediate results. Otherwise, Stephen’s death happened to no effect. On the contrary, God used Stephen’s death to harden the hearts of his hearers as well as to spread the gospel far and wide due to great persecution (Acts 8:1–3).
3. Sometimes God Chooses to Take Harsh ActionWhen I took speech class at Franklin High School with Mr. Hyde and in college with Gerald Griffin, I likely would have received a failing grade if I ended any speech with the not-so-gentle words at the end of Stephen’s speech:
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)How could Stephen have been “full of the Holy Spirit” yet have acted so harshly? Well, let’s not forget the severity of God when he struck down Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5. What about the fruit of the Spirit, which includes “gentleness” (Galatians 5:23)? Does that not apply in all cases? God appears to be doing something unique here, which breaks his normal modus operandi. In other words:
Sometimes God chooses to take harsh action.
In the case of Acts 7, God took harsh action through Stephen’s speech. Let me explain what I mean, because Stephen intentionally chose his words and he did so filled with the Spirit. He didn’t lash out irrationally. He said:
The Most High does not live in houses made by men. As the prophet says: “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me? says the Lord. Or where will my resting place be? Has not my hand made all these things?” (Acts 7:48–50).Stephen quoted Isaiah 66:1–2 here. The context of the next verses in Isaiah 66 have to do with the rebellious spirit of Israel at the time: “They have chosen their own ways,” said God. “So I also will choose harsh treatment for them” (vv. 3–4). Conclusion? While God is full of grace and truth, there’s a place in the heart of God to take harsh action. But we must think about this in a nuanced way:
God is not harsh, but he can choose to do something harsh.
I’m on a journey of discovering the character and ways of God, and I’m determined to know his gentleness. On my quest, however, I ran into this story of Stephen and what God had said in Isaiah 66. As a result, I wondered if there’s ever a time for disciples of Jesus to act harshly. After reading Acts 7 and Isaiah 66 together, I realized this: God can choose harsh treatment for people—because he’s God. I cannot choose to be harsh because I’m not God. Now it’s possible the Holy Spirit would direct me to do something like what Stephen did here, who spoke harshly to his listeners. But that’s beyond me at this point in my life. God inspired Stephen to do so, but we should be very careful about thinking God asks us to do the same. We remember that while Jesus will return with a sword by which he will “strike down the nations” (Revelation 19:15), that’s what he will do. We’re clearly called to be humble and gentle (Ephesians 4:2), and we follow a gentle king (Matthew 11:28–30). So the best course of action for disciples of Jesus to take is to stay on the humble and gentle path. For more on my understanding of the humility of Jesus, see Chapter 5, “The Yoke of Christ,” in my book with Jim Putman, The Revolutionary Disciple.
4. Sometimes People Don’t Respond WellWhile we waited to go back into drivers ed one summer in high school, I sat with a friend looking up at the sky. It was time to share the gospel, I decided. At that time, I knew how to use the “bridge analogy” to share the gospel. Unfortunately, my presentation didn’t go very well. In fact, I don’t remember any response from him. We went back into our drivers ed class and moved on. Stephen’s story in Acts 7 shows how sharing our faith with others doesn’t always result in conversions. In Stephen’s case, it ended in his own death. That’s a hard truth because we want win stories—salvation for the lost and hopeless. But that doesn’t always happen, and it isn’t necessarily our fault if people reject our message. Sometimes rejection is what needs to happen after our proclamation. The question remains, though: Why would God have Stephen do something that led to such a terrible response? Because death isn’t the worst thing that can happen to us. Yet death is what sometimes happens.
5. Sometimes Evangelism Leads to DeathThe brutality of Stephen’s death in Acts 7 might scare you. Even if the story of Ananias and Sapphira’s death by God doesn’t scare you, God’s apparent absence from saving Stephen’s life might! In these two accounts, God appears either to be killing people or letting them die. This leads to the question: How could the God of persecution be the God of goodness? As I said, death is not the worst thing that can happen to us. Now death can be terrible, but far worse than death can also happen to us. Damnation, for example, is worse. The bottom line is this:
We’re all going to die, but not all of us will truly live.
Stephen truly lived because he lived to the glory of God. He shared the gospel with an audience who didn’t want to hear his message, and they killed him for it. Sometimes evangelism leads to death, and there’s room for that, even if that reality is hard to swallow. Luke writes, “Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him” (Acts 8:2). Death is hard! But it can lead to good in the end. For example, the church scattered and preached, and “great joy” came as a result in Stephen’s case (Acts 8:4–8). While evangelism can lead to the death of a saint, it often leads to eternal life for the sinner.
Hard Lessons Can Lead to LifeLet me share my heart with you. I wrote this post to offer encouragement from the life of Stephen, even if my encouragement came through the back door. Knowing that it takes hard work and time to tell the whole story; that sometimes our words will not be received; that a harsh response might need to come from God; that our message might be rejected; and that sometimes we’ll suffer for our proclamation of the gospel—all these lessons are hard but they also lead to life. Why?
Living in reality is better than living in a facade.
Hearing truth isn’t fun if all we ever hear is hard truth. But in the end, God reigns over all kinds of truth: the good, the bad, and the ugly truth. Ugly truth is real, just not fun. But when we embrace reality as it is—hard or easy to hear—like Stephen did in his own way, we can still glorify the risen Savior and receive honor from him in return. Stephen in the Bible is a great example of someone who embraced some hard truths in evangelism, and I hope these truths will inspire and equip you.
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