Today’s reading from the book of Acts depicts what is perhaps one of the most brutal events we read of in the Bible outside of the crucifixion of Jesus – the stoning of Stephen. It is perhaps helpful to consider this in the context of what led up to this event. Stephen is described earlier in Acts as being “a man full of God’s grace and power [who] performed great wonders and signs among the people.” (Acts 6:8)
Opposition grew to his ministry, initially from the Synagogue of Freedmen (men who belonged to a Greek-speaking synagogue, perhaps founded or attended by freed slaves) who attempted to argue with Stephen but were unable to “stand up against the wisdom the Spirit gave him as he spoke.” (Acts 6:10)
Their response was to lie, and (perhaps even worse) to get other people to lie on their behalf. They knew what they were doing was wrong since they secretly persuaded some men to lie, and consciously chose to do it in a malicious and underhand way. It was a travesty of justice and an insult to God who they claimed to worship. They stirred up the people and the elders and the teachers of the law and so Stephen was seized and brought before the Sanhedrin where he was confronted with false witnesses. Even if Stephen had been wrong, which he clearly wasn’t, this was no way to deal with him and the criticism that he brought.
In response to the Sanhedrin’s questions “are these charges true?”, Stephen gave a great speech in which he defends himself and condemns the Jewish leaders. In a way quite similar to the prophets, he recounts Israel’s history and illustrates very clearly how the religious elite of his day through their actions were effectively showing how history was being repeated all over again. Like their ancestors, they had missed the point. No wonder Stephen said their “hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute?” (Acts 7:51-52)
I think that one of the hallmarks of the genuineness of our faith is the way that we choose to respond to constructive and gracious criticism. If we have integrity and grace in our faith and are secure in who we are in Christ, we will accept the criticism, bring it to God and with humility, seek to work through it. That may well involve seeking help and support from our brothers and sisters in Christ. That’s what the Sanhedrin and the religious elite could have done, but their hearts were hardened.
Criticism isn’t always constructive and gracious though, is it? Sometimes criticism can be hurtful and harmful. We must seek to learn to differentiate between constructive and destructive criticism. If we are presented with destructive criticism, there are some pointers for how we might best deal with it:
- Seek perspective. What is the person really saying? Is there some truth in it at all? What is their motive for saying it? What events led to the criticism being made? The issue may well be with the person making the destructive criticism and not with you. Yes, words can be incredibly hurtful, but ultimately they do not define us. Understanding these things helps us to respond in a gracious way, rather than from a place of hurt.
- Exercise wisdom in responding. If the criticism is totally unfounded, then simply dismiss it. That demonstrates that you will not be affected by the things that have been said. You can choose to respond with integrity and grace and without responding to criticism with criticism. If the criticism continues over a period of time, ultimately you may have to deal with the person directly and ask direct questions or make strong statements:
- Tell me more…
- Why would you say that?
- I’m sorry you feel that way
- I can accept your faulty perception of me
I think that Stephen’s criticism of the Sanhedrin and the religious elite is in some ways a lament. They had the power, and the responsibility, but they had missed the point. He yearned for them to have ears to hear and get back on track and was quite direct in presenting the truth. The response of the Sanhedrin was utterly devoid of integrity and grace. The truth can sometimes hurt, but it is still the truth.
The reaction of the Sanhedrin was extreme – we are told they were “furious and gnashed their teeth at him.” (Acts 7:54) In the face of this, when Stephen was blessed with an incredible vision of Jesus standing at the right hand of God, which to them would have been seen as the height of blasphemy, all chaos ensued….“they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him.” (Acts 7:57–58) Saul, who later became the Apostle Paul, stood idly by in approval. What an utterly tragic day. Tragic that the Sanhedrin were spiritually blind, tragic that they responded as they did, and tragic that Stephen had to die.
Even in the height of this brutal and graphic event, Stephen (much like Jesus) cried out “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” (Acts 7:60). His concern all along had been for their spiritual health and wellbeing and even to the end that concern held fast despite their behaviour.
What was it that enabled Stephen to maintain his faith even to the end and in light of such an ordeal? I think his deep and genuine faith and personal trust in and relationship with God, and his awareness of God’s unfailing love. I wonder if Stephen living out his faith in such a powerful way was in part instrumental in Paul (who had witnessed this event) eventually coming to faith in Christ once the scales had fallen from his eyes. I wonder if in part this influenced Paul who later said “I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labour for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far.” (Philippians 1:20-23) For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.
It may be that we have never known extreme persecution or encountered destructive criticism. If you have, the words from our Psalm are inspiring and comforting:
1 In you, LORD, I have taken refuge; let me never be put to shame; deliver me in your righteousness. 2 Turn your ear to me, come quickly to my rescue; be my rock of refuge, a strong fortress to save me. 3 Since you are my rock and my fortress, for the sake of your name lead and guide me. 4 Keep me free from the trap that is set for me, for you are my refuge. 5 Into your hands I commit my spirit; redeem me, LORD, my faithful God. 15 My times are in your hands; deliver me from the hands of my enemies, from those who pursue me. 16 Let your face shine on your servant; save me in your unfailing love.
Let us all seek to pray the last verse as we journey through this coming week. It is a wonder indeed when God’s face shines upon us his servants and we encounter his unfailing love. Amen