Wednesday, November 27, 2013

God Made it Worse

Stephen was "full of faith and of the Holy Spirit," well respected in the first church (Acts 6:5). He was one of seven men chosen by the church and charged with ministering to the believing Greek widows. But Stephen did more than simply distribute food. He performed miracles and spoke with wisdom (Acts 6:8-10). It wasn't long before he was opposed by a faction of the Jews. When this faction could not refute God's wisdom that Stephen taught, they resorted to a familiar tactic. They trumped up false charges against him and brought him before the Sanhedrin just as they had done to Jesus (compare Acts 6:8-14 to Matt. 26:59-61). When Stephen rebuked the religious leaders for killing Jesus, tempers in the Sanhedrin began to boil over. Then God did something interesting...He made it worse.
When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him.
Acts 7:54-58a

God not only allowed Stephen to die, He practically caused it. Why would He do that? One of His followers was in trouble, and far from coming to the rescue God made it worse. And how do we reconcile God's actions in this passage with Romans 8:28? "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose." The Christian calling is in line with God's purpose for the world and our individual good. Often this means suffering for the faith. From the early church up to today this has been a reality of the Christian life. The Bible itself does not hide this. Jesus is Christianity's first martyr. Stephen is martyred shortly thereafter. Paul and others of the apostles are imprisoned, beaten and whipped. Though the Bible does not record it church history tells us that many of the apostles and other early believers suffered and died for their faith. The simple truth is that God's best for His children has always been in heaven. He blesses us here on earth as well, but our greatest blessings were always going to come in heaven.

So how did this work out for Stephen's good? The good that it worked for Stephen wasn't in this life. Stephen's reward is in heaven. The Bible assures us that all those who suffer faithfully will receive their reward in heaven (Matthew 5:11-12 & Mark 10:28-30). God's vision gave Stephen the strength and wisdom to stand strong until the end, to die a good death in defense of the gospel. He enabled Stephen to endure his stoning with peace and forgiveness in His heart. He accomplished the purpose for which God called him and for that Stephen will be blessed.  

Still why would God allow Stephen to die? How does it further His purposes to see one of His followers die? Acts 8:1-4 is instructive.
On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison. Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.
Because of the persecution that broke out against Stephen and the church as a whole, the gospel was taken out of Jerusalem and preached in many surrounding areas. Christianity spread and began to grow as a direct result. The early church father Tertullian has been quoted as saying that "the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church." It certainly seems that in the case of Stephen, he was right. Had Stephen not suffered the church might have remained primarily restricted to Jerusalem. So in the end we can see that God can work even the suffering of His saints for their good and for the furthering of His kingdom in the world.

Is the Lord allowing a trial in your life right now? I wish that I could tell you that believers always beat cancer or they never go bankrupt, but I can't. What I can tell you is that God is with you in your trial, just like He was with Stephen. God has promised that all things work together for the believer's good either in this life or in the next. And God always keeps His promises. Persevere under your hardship! Resist the urge to strike out at God and blame Him. Instead, consider how it might be used by God to further His purposes in the world. Bear up under it with peace and joy looking forward to your reward in heaven. God is aware of your suffering, and you can rest assured that He has not allowed it to happen for no reason. 

(*I praise the Lord for our 200th blog post! And I thank my wife, Stacy, for tirelessly editing these posts over the past three years and ten months. She is a great blessing to me and to every reader of this blog.)

For further reading...
  • Acts 7- In this passage Stephen responds to the charges brought against him with a masterful summary of the Old Testament from Abram's call (Genesis 12) to Solomon's building of the temple (I Kings 6 & II Chronicles 5:1).
  • Matthew 5:11-12 & Mark 10:28-30- Rewards for those who suffer in the name of Jesus.
  • A Share in His Sufferings- Read another WoW blog post on suffering. 
  • Entitled- Do you have an entitled attitude before the Lord? Read this WoW blog post to find out. 

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