Jul. 2—The stoning of Stephen, a deacon in the first Christian church in Jerusalem and the first Christian martyr, in Acts 6 and 7 is a poignant one about a man whose conviction was too strong for him to deny Jesus and save his life.
The Revs. Curtis Benninghoff and Ben Ford say Stephen's example should inspire Christians to persevere through whatever difficulties they encounter in life.
The Rev. Benninghoff, pastor of 7 Cities Church in Midland, said Stephen "was a devout follower of Christ who was called before the Sanhedrin because he questioned their religion versus their faith by pointing out their pedigree that came from Abraham.
"He was not part of the Pharisees, who were the upper echelon," Benninghoff said. "He was an outsider who antagonized them because he knew so much about their history."
The Bible says Stephen reviewed the whole history of the Jews and then infuriated his audience by looking up and saying he saw Jesus standing at the right hand of God. "The ninth chapter of Hebrews says Jesus sits at God's right hand, but I see him standing here because Stephen was his advocate," said Benninghoff, noting that the young Saul of Tarsus, who later became the Apostle Paul, was guarding the clothes of the men who stoned Stephen and that Saul approved of Stephen's death.
"He refused to denounce Christ," Benninghoff said. "When we commit our lives to Christ, we sometimes think there won't be any problems or suffering in our lives, but Second Timothy 3:12 says that as many as live Godly shall suffer tribulation.
"Christianity has been so convoluted that any little test of life shakes our faith to the core because we desire a life of no suffering or pain, which smacks in the face of what true Christianity is."
Citing Matthew 16:24, Benninghoff said, "Jesus said, 'If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.'
"We live in a society of self-preservation, self-protection and narcissism, but I believe true Christianity brings us to a place of generosity and faith that is expressed by giving."
Most Christians fled Jerusalem after Stephen died, but the 12 apostles stayed there.
The Rev. Ford, pastor of Grace Christian Fellowship, said Stephen's "faith was unrelenting.
"He knew that this was what was true and he wasn't going to back down from it," Ford said. "It's unique to see how he moved to different positions of influence and leadership in the church in a short amount of time. God allows him to see Jesus up in Heaven and I think there are many instances where people have this special opportunity that God gives when they are near to death.
"This is one of those instances in the Bible where God shows the other side of the curtain."
While the image of Stephen's appearance before the Sanhedrin is extreme, Ford said, it is not all that dissimilar to what many people face when they present the truth to a hostile audience. "There is a lot of animosity right now against people who stand up for specific things that don't align with topics that today's culture might agree with," he said.
"There are times to stay silent, but there is a place for boldness as well and it is important to remember who Stephen was when he was speaking to other religious leaders. The reality is that Christians are dying every day for their faith and he was willing to accept the same fate."