I was once given a book of funny epitaphs found on tombstones, ranging from ‘I told you I was ill’ to ‘we finally found a place to park in Georgetown!’ People often like to leave witty comments as their final legacy and sometimes poems have been engraved on tombstones, such as:
Than he could pay.
Here lies the body
of Jonathan Blake
Stepped on the gas
Instead of the brake.
Whilst we may find these things funny, the legacy we leave behind is more than a humorous epitaph on a tombstone (or even a sentimental one), more than the money or property we may bequeath to family members (or animal charities.) It matters how we are remembered, not simply so that we can be famous or entered into some archive or other, but because we are made in God’s image and therefore the influence we have on people and our world can echo long after our mortal remains have perished. Since God has set eternity in our hearts (Eccl 3:11), it matters that what we do and are lasts into eternity.
Stephen is a character in the Bible who features in just three chapters in the book of Acts, but his influence was profound. He is introduced to us as being one of the seven men chosen to oversee the distribution of food to the widows (Acts 6:5) and is described as being a man ‘full of the Spirit and wisdom’ (Acts 6:3), ‘a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit’ (Acts 6:5), and ‘a man full of God’s grace and power’ who performed great signs and wonders among the people (Acts 6:8). His speech to the Sanhedrin (which takes up most of Acts 7) is one of the most succinct and eloquent potted histories of the Israelites in the whole Bible and he will forever be known as the first Christian martyr (Acts 7:54-60). That’s quite a legacy for someone whose life story takes up relatively little space in our understanding of God. It would seem that Stephen’s death had a profound impact on Saul of Tarsus (see Acts 8:1), and so the legacy went far beyond Stephen’s lifetime, reverberating throughout history and reminding us what pure devotion to God can look like.
I wonder if my life had to be summarised in as few words as these descriptions in Acts 6 whether I would be as happy with the description of myself as Stephen surely would have been with Luke’s description of himself. Three times Stephen is described as being ‘full of…’ Wisdom, faith, grace and power are impressive qualities to be remembered for: I think I’d settle for just one of those! Stephen was clearly someone who loved God and walked in his ways. Ultimately, that description would be one I’d be happy to live (and die) with, and it’s no surprise that I chose to name my only son after this remarkable man. Stephen has much to teach us about a faithful (and faith-full) life; his legacy lives on for all to see.