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Opposition has become a familiar theme in our Bible studies in Acts; this was something the early church had to contend with from the outset, and this is not surprising, given the opposition that Jesus Himself had to face. Jesus warned His disciples frequently about this (e.g. Matt 10:16-20, Matt 24:9-14, Luke 21:12-19) and gave strategies for dealing with opposition which, as Garry recently reminded us, can only be fulfilled as we live in the Spirit (Matt 5:11-12, Matt 5:38-48, Rom 12:17-21), so revolutionary are they!
Stephen faced opposition to his preaching. Initially, his opponents tried to debate with him (as they had with Jesus – see Matt 21:23ff), but when they failed, they resorted to false charges (Acts 6:11, 13; see also Matt 26:59) and personal slander. This is often the way the enemy works; as Tom Wright wryly comments, “People today often find real debate about actual topics difficult, and much prefer the parody of debate which consists of giving a dog a bad name and then beating him for it, and lashing out too at anyone who happens to associates with the dog you happen to be beating at the time.” (Tom Wright, ‘Acts For Everyone Pt 1’, P 103)
Paul tells us that ‘everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted’ (2 Tim 3:12), a verse we would prefer to ignore. Stephen was the first Christian martyr, but he shows us how to bear opposition with grace and poise. We are told ‘they could not stand up against the wisdom the Spirit gave him as he spoke’ (Acts 6:10), and all through this account, we see the grace of Christ shining through him: his face like an angel (Acts 6:15), his courage when being stoned (Acts 7:55-56) and his ability to forgive others even as they were killing him. (Acts 7:59-60) Stephen, this man of the Spirit, full of faith, wisdom and grace, gives us a living example of how to deal with opposition. We may wonder why God allowed this man to die, why his ministry was cut short, why suffering has to be such an integral part of life, but in living out his faith to the end, Stephen fills us with hope and shows us that God’s plans cannot be thwarted, even by death.