As a preface to this post, I think some context is in order. I recently was privileged to take a 9-day trip to Israel with several other young adults from the broader Christian community at UNC. While learning about Israel’s history and current political divides, my friends and I had the opportunity of a lifetime to visit ancient Biblical sites that are significant to Jesus, Jewish people before the incarnation, as well as the early church after His resurrection.
It should come as no shock to us that this land is of incredible significance to us as Christians. A multitude of Godly men and women have lived as prophets, priests, judges, kings, slaves, sojourners, martyrs, and stewards of God’s promises in this land as the message of Jesus’ redeeming work began to spread to all peoples of the earth.
While walking in the old city several days ago, I was particularly struck by something our tour guide said as we approached what is today called the “Lion’s Gate”. In antiquity it was referred to as “Saint Stephen’s Gate” to revere and memorialize the martyrdom of Saint Stephen. I strongly encourage you to peruse Acts 6, 7, and 8:1 before reading any further in this post.
Acts 6-8 relay how the 12 disciples (after replacing Judas) decide to select 7 brothers in the church to serve a variety of community needs. One of these 7 is Stephen, who is described as “a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 6:5). Stephen, following the example of his Lord, endeavors to perform a variety of signs and wonders. Like Jesus, he is suspected, accused, and brought before religious authorities that will put him to death. In his last moments, Stephen delivered a tear-wrenching sermon in front of the masses before he was stoned to death in front of Saul (Paul). At the end of this section is a powerful and painful section of verses:
But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my Spirit’. And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ And when he had said this, he fell asleep. And Saul approved of his execution…Acts 7:57 – 8:1a
One could write for years about the significance of Stephen’s speech and the character that this godly man cultivated in order to die as gloriously and selflessly as he did. The discipline and love that God blessed Stephen with captivates me. Stephen’s story is inspiring and demands that modern Christians be honest with themselves and others. However, thanks to my good friend Jack and our collaboration on the topic, I would like to narrow our focus to something that must have happened in the years following Stephen’s martyrdom.
If you will recall with me, the apostle Luke wrote both the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts as a two-part narrative describing the inception and growth of the Church. Luke, being the author of Acts, was near the center of the early Church’s ministry. After Jesus’ death he even traveled with Paul to bring the good news to the nations of modern-day Asia and Europe. As a key co-worker in Paul’s ministry, it is obvious that Luke knew a great amount about Paul’s life in order to recount so much of it in Acts.
What specifically did Luke know of Paul though? They almost certainly didn’t begin as friends. Luke probably knew that Paul was once a persecutor of “the Way” and an enemy of the Lord. After all, the martyrdom of Stephen began a wave of terror that scattered the early Church (Acts 8:1). Luke also knew that Paul was radically converted as he was on the road to Damascus. This was Paul’s testimony after all, and it is described by Luke in detail in Acts 9.
All of this raises some very significant questions. How does Luke know specifically about Paul’s role in presiding over the stoning of Stephen? As one of the earliest Christians in the fledgling faith, Luke may have known Stephen to a certain degree. They may have even been friends. Now I must admit that we cannot know whether Luke was there on that fateful day of Stephen’s execution or not. However, Paul was there, and it is not a far cry to surmise that at one point on their many journeys together, Paul confessed to Luke one of the ways in which he persecuted the church before his conversion.
Take a minute to imagine the gravity of such a conversation. Paul effectively admitted to Luke that he killed Stephen. Confession is difficult enough, but I cannot begin to understand how painful this conversation must have been. Luke may have experienced confusion, shock, rage, and deep depression. Paul was probably riddled with guilt, tempted to shame, and may have even feared what this sin could mean for the future of his ministry. The work of confession, an emotionally-grueling task for anyone, was taken to a new level in this theoretical, yet probable, conversation that Paul and Luke had together.
What’s more, we even get a glimpse of what Paul’s conversation with the apostles may have been like shortly after his conversion. Luke notes that…
And when he had come to Jerusalem, he attempted to join the disciples. And they were all afraid of him, for they did not believe that he was a disciple. But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles and declared to them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who spoke to him, and how at Damascus he had preached boldly in the name of Jesus. So he went in and out among them at Jerusalem, preaching boldly in the name of the Lord.Acts 9:26-28
In this conversation, Paul almost certainly had to look certain disciples in the eye who had been co-workers and friends of Stephen and admit what he had done. Paul had to confess that he had been a great enemy of the Church, its members, and of the Lord himself. Paul’s confidence in God’s sovereignty, love, and glory must have encouraged him to share the truth here, no matter how much it hurt.
It is worth adding though, that this confession could not have been the most emotionally-difficult one for Paul. As Paul approached Damascus, a great light blinded him and the Lord asked “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4). Despite the personal, direct pain that Paul wanted to cause to members of the body of Christ (Acts 9:1), Jesus tells the world that sin breaks His heart even more than it does the hearts of the wronged party. This is because Jesus takes the place of the wronged party. A major theme of Jesus’ ministry was that he came to bear the pains and wrongs of all generations, so that we might follow him and cease to harm one another and ourselves.
How much did it hurt for Paul to recognize what he had done? As he sat blindly in Ananias’ house in Damascus, I am sure that Paul wrestled with his own sin and iniquity to a degree that we can hardly imagine. But let us try to imagine it. Just as Paul would one day confess his sin to Luke and the 12 apostles, Paul certainly confessed to Jesus that day.
I find it easy to ignore the humanity of biblical heroes. People such as Paul experienced the full, complicated gamut of emotions that you and I wrestle with today (Rom. 7:15). David openly expresses deep sadness, regret, and pain in many Psalms. We even see in the Gospels that Jesus himself, being both fully God and fully man, felt incredible, emotional pain during his life (Matt. 26:37). Ministry isn’t easy, and it never has been.
These examples of godly individuals should be incredibly encouraging. With the Holy Spirit, we can join the ranks of Paul, Luke, and Stephen as they performed acts of faith, in spite of greater persecution than we face today! Please think deeply about the implications of Ananias’ words. “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 9:17). Just as Luke and Ananias didn’t hold this vile sin against Paul, neither did the Lord. The same Holy Spirit can empower us to confess our sins in confidence, and also to listen and accept our brothers and sisters back into the body of Christ when we are wronged.
Let us strive to live unashamedly like Stephen. Let us boldly confess our broken ways like Paul. Let us forgive to the highest degree possible like Luke. And let us seek the Lord always, the only one who can enable us to pursue these acts of righteousness.