Ye stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do ye.
Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted? and they have slain them which shewed before of the coming of the Just One; of whom ye have been now the betrayers and murderers:
Who have received the law by the disposition of angels, and have not kept it.
When they heard these things, they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed on him (Stephen) with their teeth.
But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up stedfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God,
And said, Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God.
Then they cried out with a loud voice, and stopped their ears, and ran upon him with one accord,
And cast him out of the city, and stoned him: and the witnesses laid down their clothes at a young man’s feet, whose name was Saul.
And they stoned Stephen, calling upon God, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.
And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep.
And Saul was consenting unto his death. And at that time there was a great persecution against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered abroad throughout the regions of Judaea and Samaria, except the apostles.
And devout men carried Stephen to his burial, and made great lamentation over him. ~~ Acts 7:51-8:2 (KJV)
Stephen is called the first martyr of the church because this death is the first one recorded in the Book of Acts. For many years it was just a so-so story for me. After all, this happened many years ago. I was probably not going to be martyred, so what did it have to do with me?
Then a member of my family was murdered. It was a senseless, random act. He simply happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Anger at the perpetrators of this heinous deed boiled and seethed. But then I remembered Acts 8:1.
Saul of Tarsus (whom we now call Paul – yes, the same Paul who wrote more than half of the New Testament) was at this event. Not only was he there, he gave approval. I can see him now, egging the crowd on. It’s a Cecil B. DeMille crowd scene in an epic movie. Lots of noise, lots of anger, lots of yelling, dark clouds, ominous music. Then a break and light and glorious paean of praise at the climax.
Of course, Saul wasn’t “participating.” He was there, giving his approval. He certainly wasn’t throwing stones, but he might as well have been.
And Stephen, as he is dying, repeated the thoughts of Jesus. He asked the Lord not to hold this sin against the members of the crowd. That forgiveness was powerful. It was one factor that freed Saul to become Paul.
If God can take the chief persecutor of the early church and use him to write the larger part of the New Testament, He can do anything. He can even forgive the people who murdered that member of my family.
Forgiveness is not a matter of the emotions. It is a decision that we make. We can decide to forgive. That doesn’t mean feelings will not surface from time to time. It does mean we can decide to override those emotions. We need to agree with God that even the most heinous crime is forgivable if the perpetrator repents.
We hear “forgive and forget” or “kiss and make up.” But those are not really forgiveness. Forgiveness is being able to look at the offense as fact, accurately recognizing the perpetrator’s part in the offense, and then seeing that person through the eyes of God, as a beloved child who has strayed from the path, whom He wants to bring back into the fold.
Help us to see those who have offended us through Your eyes. Grant us the strength and grace to move from anger and hurt and bitterness to forgiveness and peace.
In Jesus’ most precious name.