Sunday, December 26, 2010

Celebrating courage

"Stoning of Saint Stephen" by
Pietro da Cortona (1660)
Written by Cheryl Odden

By the middle of the second century, the early church was experiencing waves of persecution in the Roman Empire. As the church grew and became more organized, it developed traditions that live on today. During the second century, the church began celebrating “saint days,” honouring their brethren’s courage on the days they were martyred. Today, some churches still celebrate saint days.

Today—December 26—is the day that honours the early church’s first martyr, Stephen, whose story is told in Acts 6-7.

A man filled with faith and the Holy Spirit, Stephen was gifted in preaching the gospel and defending the Christian faith. Chosen as one of seven men to ensure Hellenistic (Greek-speaking) Jewish widows were receiving the food they needed, Stephen continued his preaching ministry. Hecklers were no match for Stephen. So, some chose to silence him for good.

When rumours spread throughout the city that Stephen had blasphemed God, the Law and the temple, he was hauled before the Jewish legal council called the Sanhedrin. Stephen answered the accusations through a lengthy monologue, telling God’s redemptive history from the time of Abraham to Jesus Christ. However, the Sanhedrin’s interest turned to anger when Stephen accused their forefathers of persecuting the prophets who told of Christ’s coming and crucifying Him.

With those words, they were done listening. In fact, Scripture says they were so mad that they gnashed their teeth. But Stephen wasn’t intimidated. He looked up and told the rage-filled crowd that he saw Jesus standing at the right hand of God.

Covering their ears and drowning out his voice with shouting, the crowd hauled Stephen outside the city gates. Despite rocks hitting his young frame, Stephen prayed for his persecutors.

All the while, a young man named Saul stood watching, holding the cloaks of those who hurled the rocks, ending Stephen’s life.

Soon after Stephen’s death, Saul enacted a crackdown on the church, arresting the fleeing Christ-followers. But one time as he pursued them, he encountered Jesus Christ, setting this zealous persecutor of the church on a different course.

Today, take a few minutes to thank the Lord for Stephen’s courage. Ask God to continue filling His people around the world with the power of the Holy Spirit so they can witness boldly for Him amidst hostile situations as Stephen did.

The Voice of the Martyrs has published a children’s illustrated storybook about Stephen called God’s Witness: The Courage of Stephen. To order, visit our website at http://www.persecution.net/.

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