Facing Persecution

True redemption is when guilt leads to good. The Bible says “I have blotted out, as a thick cloud, thy transgressions, and, as a cloud, thy sins: return unto me; for I have redeemed thee.”  Isaiah 44:22

“Heaven is my throne, and earth is my footstool: what house will ye build me? saith the Lord; or what is the place of my rest?” Acts 7:49

As Stephen looked out over the deafening crowd, some screeched vile words, some in a sound of agreement and accord, he thought to himself this is where God wants me, and this is what God requires of me to do, He will be with me, through the fire, even unto the end…

Fear of persecution and death did not subdue him. The gospel of Jesus Christ and the message of hope that Christ Himself demonstrated during His time on earth, up to the time of Calvary, must be sustained.  Stephen, along with the rest of the followers, began to lift up their voices and pray and worship God on the street corners of Jerusalem. These men and women were called to declare the gospel –it was what they lived for.  As they prayed with loud voices, many looked upon them with curiosity and questions, others with ill will.  Stephen, along with Philip, Timon, and the other leaders, began to tell stories of miracles performed by their savior here on earth. They spoke of healings and told stories of redemption.

Peter stood across a the crowd, listening. A memory from not far in his past flashed before his eyes. A scene he would not soon forget, for it struck his soul with sorrow and shame. Peter sees the man he called his friend, his brother, and his messiah, chained and bloody standing before a mob; a mob of people screaming hateful words and names to the man who was soon to be crucified for their sins. Peter remembers the fear he felt at what was to come and he could never forget the way his flesh failed him as he denied the Son of Man.  Peter opens his eyes and sees the people in the surrounding crowd, he sees the people walking by, a few with curious expressions, others angry showing signs of aggression. Peter thinks to himself, I will never go back to what I was then. I will proclaim the name of Jesus for the world to hear, even until the moment I take my last breath. In the near distance, there were some who watched and listened in the shadows.  Their hearts longing for the hope these followers preach about, and the boldness to embrace it.

Saul, having a hardened heart, was not pleased with the news that had been presented to him. “Embarrassing…ludicrous. This is blasphemy! These followers will not abandon their efforts”  he protested. He ordered his men, “let us call a meeting. We will stop this insanity before it grows into something of greater force.” The Sanhedrin met on a weekly basis, but it seemed their gatherings were happening more frequently as the followers of Christ grew in numbers.  Saul paced back and forth, “make this meeting happen within the hour” he called to the leaders of the counsel.

Every day, the followers gathered for a time of prayer and devotion. Their numbers grew as one by one the people of the city came to know God, through the teachings they heard on the street, or, even in the confines of the follower’s homes. Stephen wept before God daily… ”If we could reach but one soul, then our work will not be wasted; for that one soul was worth dying for in Your eyes, Father. Give us strength to continue our journey, despite those who seek to destroy us. And give us wisdom and words to fulfill Your will.” Stephen smiled. He knew that God would be with them in this season, and He would go before them.  There was an overwhelming feeling of thanksgiving for the work God was doing within Israel, through the men and woman of God who lived to serve and reach for hungry and longing souls.

Saul, along with the council leaders, stepped forward, “What can we do? We cannot let this continue, for it will become too powerful of a movement if we do not end it now. Their numbers are growing and their followers are becoming more bold and outspoken. They do not fear us; we pass them in the streets and they begin to raise their voices! What can we do, without shedding blood of hundreds? We do not seek destruction. We want peace, but, what they speak of is not peace, it is blasphemy… yet our own are joining them.” A laugh proceeds from one of the men, “What can we do?” he yells as he raises his fist to the sky, “We divide the ground beneath their feet, we take away their voice.” The room became silent as they considered the words spoken.  They knew what must be done. Together, as if one voice, the council members agreed, “We must take down their leader.”

Peter talked with a few of the women followers about organizing some baskets of food for the local widows and their children. They would often come to the followers knowing their willingness and desire to help those in need. It gave them a chance to speak to them about God. That day, Peter decided to go along with the women, to pray with those they were visiting.  Stephen went alone to an elder’s home, a man by the name of Hiram. A man who wished to become a follower of Jesus, he had heard people speaking of the stories that were told on the streets and marketplaces. His heart grew with desire for Christ. Today, that desire would be fulfilled. He prayed with Stephen and cried out unto the Lord. As they prayed, what Stephen did not realize, was there was a crowd gathering around this elder’s home. As he stepped foot outside, he was surrounded by voices accusing him and crying “Blasphemer!” with loud voices, “this man speaks and teaches falsely about our God. Take him to be tried before the Sanhedrin.”

Something began to tug at Peter’s heart as he talked to the widows. He felt compelled to pray, but he felt he should not pray alone. “Let us all bow our heads in prayer at this moment. Let us pray for the hand of God to be on this city. Pray that God will be with me, and for all of us together, that His strength will get us through trying times.”

Stephen stood before the counsel, his arms and feet bound.  They began to accuse him. Stephen closed his eyes and smiled, for, in the face of turmoil, he felt the presence of God. If God be for me, who can be against me?  Then, in that moment, God gave him strength to fight, even if it meant he would have to fight his way to death. Stephen began to accuse them in response. He spoke of Moses bringing the children of Israel out of bondage and how God was with Joseph in Egypt. He spoke of Abraham and Jacob. Stephen looked from eye to eye and reminded them how God was with those men and made them prosper in all they did, for He favored them. As the council listened, they became silent, for Stephen spoke in the Holy Ghost.  They listened as he condemned them. “You stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Ghost, as your fathers did!”

Philip heard the commotion from the center of the city. He knew something was not right, for he felt uneasiness in his spirit. He searched for Peter, but he was nowhere to be found. As Philip made his way from the outside gates of the city to the center, his assumption was confirmed. There, in front of the council building, stood his brother and friend — his eyes lifted to the heavens; his face appearing as an angel. He was speaking words no one could comprehend, for he spoke and said, “I see the heavens open and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God.” The throng about him began to cry out “Blasphemer!” They covered their ears and dragged him to the center of the mob, where they dropped their coats at Saul’s feet and gathered stones. Stephen fell on his knees and, with lifted hands, cried unto God, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And, yet, while they stoned him, he prayed for them, that the Lord not charge them with this sin.

He will be with me — even unto the end.

Hiram made his way to the place where they laid Stephen’s body. Even in his old age, he fell on his face and wept, “Thank you, God, for sending this man to me. For through him, I found You. Everything this man touched was blessed because of his faithfulness to You. Let the generations to come live to proclaim your glory as this man has done and many others are doing. Let us not turn away in the face of persecution, but help us to stand on the foundation you laid for us, and let us not be moved. Amen.”

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