Strange New Thoughts

The place where I slam down gauntlets and pick up the pieces.

Monday, September 24, 2007

How To Go Out With A Bang

This was originally written by me as an essay assignment for Youth With A Mission's Staff and Leadership Training (SALT) School in Panama. I couldn't resist posting it.

(Old Testament Profile: Stephen)

"Hold on a minute," you may well say. "Stephen is in the New Testament!" Well, yes and no. If I recall correctly, a) this profile can be about a leader from either the Old or New Testament, and b) apart from Christ Jesus Himself and perhaps the author of Hebrews, nobody in the N.T. can be found to be more in the Old Testament (in the sense of being "in the word") than Stephen. Here's a guy who, in two chapters, demonstrates servant leadership, apostolic ministry, signs and wonders, O.T. scholarship, biblical exposition, public oration, apologetics, prophetic judgement, apocalyptic vision, glorious martyrdom and intercession on behalf of those who stoned him to death. Would that many of us could accomplish in a lifetime what he does in days, hours, even.

In his song commemorating the Columbine High School massacre, Michael W. Smith eulogizes martyr Cassie Bernall with the words, "It was a test we could all hope to pass / but none of us would want to take." Cassie declared her faith in God at gunpoint, and was rewarded with a bullet. Being now part of the "great cloud of witnesses" (Hebrews 12:1), Cassie joins Stephen in demonstrating what a true disciple under fire can accomplish.

Stephen's appointment to his ministry post is noble, if not glamorous: "It is not desirable for us to neglect the serve tables," the Apostles observe. "Therefore, men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom..." (Acts 6:2). Here we see that Stephen already has a good reputation among the Twelve. That should be enough for anybody. But God doesn't select Stephen just to have an overqualified waiter on hand. Trouble's already brewing.

We already know from the Gospels that many religious leaders of the time felt explicitly threatened by anybody whose power and authority exceeded theirs. Enter Stephen, wearing whatever waiters wore in those days, performing signs and wonders (doubtless with an emphasis on healing the sick and infirm, a cornerstone of the Holy Spirit's manifestation.) Enter the bad guys, stage left: Cyrenians, Alexandrians, men from Cicilia and Asia, representing the "Synagogue of the Freedmen". Talk about ganging up on a guy.

This next part just curls my toes: "But they were unable to cope with the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking" (6:10). How Christlike, to be so full of the Holy Spirit as to be unanswerable. It's great fun to imagine these guys stammering and turning purple as Stephen calmly refutes them from the Scriptures. Of course, the fun is deadly serious, and will soon give way to lies and false witness before the Council, before whom they have dragged this unassuming waiter, whose face has by now taken on an angelic quality calculated to drive the religious leaders into a frenzy of self-loathing .

"Are these things so?" asks the high priest at the beginning of chapter 7. Talk about a loaded question. God has been preparing Stephen for this moment for years, steeping him not only in the letter of the Law, but also in the Holy Spirit (a rare combination.) "Hear me, bretheren and fathers!" thunders Stephen. What follows is the best summary of the Law and the Prophets since our Lord boiled them down to two commandments. Beginning with Abraham, then working his way through Joseph, Moses, Joshua, David and Solomon, Stephen delivers the pithiest, most engaging synopsis of the Old Testament you could ever dream of. You can just see the Council and the attendant accusers hanging on his every word, jaws dropped in stupefied amazement.

Finally he delivers the coup-de-grâce: "However, the Most High does not dwell in houses made by human hands. 'HEAVEN IS MY THRONE, AND THE EARTH IS THE FOOTSTOOL OF MY FEET; WHAT KIND OF HOUSE WILL YOU BUILD FOR ME?' says the Lord. WAS IT NOT MY HAND THAT MADE THESE THINGS?' You men who are stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears (touché, Stephen) are always resisting the Holy Spirit; you are doing just as your fathers did." If Stephen senses that the end is near, he sure doesn't seem to care. "Which one of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? They killed those who had previously announced the coming of the Righteous One, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become; you who received the law as ordained by angels, and yet did not keep it." (Vss. 49 - 43.)

There's a grim kind of humor present when a captive hero delivers a well-aimed pie in der Führer's face. "Now when they heard this, they were cut to the quick, and they began gnashing their teeth at him." (V. 54.) (Oh, and exactly how do you gnash your teeth, anyway? Well, according to verse 57, it helps to cover your ears and mob the guy who's busy cutting your quick to ribbons.) Apparently, they couldn't handle his climax: "Behold, I see the heavens opened up and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God."

You know the rest. They stone him, he asks Jesus to receive his spirit, and puts in a good word for his murderers: "Lord, do not hold this sin against them!" God duly notes that final request, and at least one of those who put his seal of approval on Stephen's death (one Saul of Tarsus) is not only forgiven by God, but eventually joins Stephen in most or all of the good works I put into my first paragraph.

If I were on a desert island with only one chapter of the Bible available to me, I wouldn't need to think twice: Acts 7, please. Here's a man whose entrance, performance and exit are in turn humble, powerful and slam-bang glorious. His discourse alone is as scholarly as it is appropriate, as powerful as it is economical. Here is leadership by example, by service, and by influence. The multiplication if his ministry (i.e., Paul, the early Church, etc.) is staggering, especially in the face of his brief, meteoric appearance in Acts. I hope I never have to face what he did, but if I do, God grant me the grace to be half as ready for it as was Stephen .