When we’re in pain, usually we just want it to go away. At least that’s how I am. I can get very worked up emotionally, imagining that I’ll be in pain the rest of my life. So far, that thought of mine has never been true, as the pain heals. What it reveals is that I think about the wrong things when I’m in pain. It is hard to choose to think differently when you’re in pain, but as we’re going to see today, it is possible.
This week we have been looking at the ministry of one of the earliest followers of Jesus, a man named Stephen, as told in Acts 6:8-8:3, and how we can learn from him how to live in our liminal moment. Not sure what a liminal moment is? Go back and read the first two posts here and here. We’re living in such a moment, as the corona virus affects the globe. Thus far we’ve seen Stephen boldly confront the hypocrisy and fraud of the Jewish leaders. He has said that they are no better than pagans. How will they receive his word of harsh accountability?
Look at Acts 7, verse 54. The leaders erupt in anger. That picture of gnashing teeth is vivid isn’t it? It reminds me of a situation I dealt with a couple weeks ago running with my dog. I can’t begin to tell you how many local farmers let their dogs run free. So we’re running, always on the left side of the road toward incoming traffic, as is normal for runners, and maybe 50 yards ahead on the same side of the street, I see two dogs in a yard. They notice us, and start running toward us. I’m thinking, “Oh man…here we go,” knowing what is coming next. My dog Bentley sees them too. Immediately he pulls hard on the leash toward them, so I start to yank him in the opposite direction across the street to the other side of the road, hoping that those two dogs will not come out onto the road.
The two dogs come right out into the road, and they didn’t look both ways first. One dog, mouth open, teeth bared, goes right for Bentley’s face. I start yelling loudly at the dogs, “No!” Multiple times I yell, hoping to scare them off. It works! The dogs turn and start running back to their yard. But Bentley and I are going in opposite directions now, because he wants to chase the dogs, while I’m trying to run up the road away from that yard. Instead of following me, Bentley lunges in the dog’s direction, gets his head out of his collar, and tears off toward them! I’m left holding a limp leash and collar, thinking, “Oh no…” Knowing him, he was seeing red and wasn’t going to stop until he chased down those dogs. In a split second he had dashed halfway into their yard, so I start yelling at him to, “Sit, Stay!” But I wasn’t sure he would listen. Hearing my commands, thankfully he obeyed and stopped running. Rattled, I put his collar back on, and led him back onto the road.
Those leaders in the Jewish ruling body, the Sanhedrin, were like Bentley. Angry, gnashing their teeth, wanting revenge.
Right at that moment, something amazing happens, an astounding event that can help us learn to think differently when we are in the middle of pain. Stephen, as we read in verses 55-56, has a vision of God. And what’s more, he has the audacity to tell the people what he sees! What can we learn from this? Though he was facing a perilous reality, Stephen is 100% focused on God. In the midst of his liminal moment, he was still attuned to God. That is very instructive for us in our liminal moments. What can it look like for us to focus on God, right in the middle of the uncertainty, the pain, the struggle?
Unfortunately, Stephen’s sermon, message, and now this vision are all too much for the religious leaders. What happens next is awful. Read 7:57-8:1 to see for yourself.
They drag Stephen outside the city, like a mob, and stone him. Stoning was often performed by dropping large rocks on a person. An awful way to die.
Take notice that as he describes Stephen’s horrible end, the author, Luke, does two things with this event.
First, Luke mentions that a man named Saul is involved. We meet him in 7:58, and in 8:1. He is described as a young man, and yet he seems to have some kind of leadership role, though it is not defined. The people put their clothes at his feet, and he is giving approval. Why would they lay their clothes at his feet? The first thing that comes to my mind is that they needed less encumbrance to lift and drop or throw stones. Who is this Saul? More on him in the coming posts.
The second thing Luke mentions is Stephen’s final words. “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit,” and then falling to his knees, “Do not hold this sin against them.” Again Stephen is laser-focused on God, though he is now just about to die. Sound familiar? It should. Jesus said nearly the same things for two of his seven last words. “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit,” and “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” What we see in Luke’s account of Stephen’s death, then, are numerous parallels to the death of Jesus:
- The signs and wonders, the powerful speaking which the Jews could not stand up against.
- The arrest and false accusation.
- An indictment of the leaders as hypocritical and false.
- Finally the death, including words that are similar.
Luke is very purposefully making parallels between the two. He is not saying that Stephen is equal to Jesus, but he is saying that Stephen was an amazing disciple of Jesus, willing to give his life for the Kingdom, just like Jesus did. When Stephen gave his life, he suffered a brutal death, just like Jesus’ did.
There is a major difference between the two. Stephen was not the perfect sacrifice like Jesus was. Thus while Jesus rose again, Stephen would not. But there was something that happened after the horror of Stephen’s death. Like a crucifixion and resurrection, what happened next brought new life to many. We’ll look at that in the next post.
For now, think about how Stephen chooses to focus on God, though he is being stoned to death. I don’t know if I could do that. I think I would want to try to run away. Likely Stephen was surrounded, and there was no escape. In that moment, he remains focused on God, and in the process, behaves very similarly to Jesus. Stephen, therefore, is an excellent example for us about how to think in the middle of pain. What are some creative ways you can focus on God in the middle of the pain?