Something that my wife and I constantly tell our children is that giftedness and intelligence are vastly overrated. We also tell them that hard work, discipline, and convictional courage is vastly underrated. We tend to misjudge what is most valuable in almost every aspect of our lives—including our spiritual lives.
Think with me for a moment about how we often view evangelism and missions. We tend to think that the reason some people seem to be really good at evangelism is that they are gifted with charisma or have had the right training. But neither of those things are true. The main ingredient that makes a good evangelist is Christ-centered courage. Faithful courage. Without courage, you will use your giftedness, your charisma, your intelligence for self-protection. Thus. hindering the spread of the Gospel. Your giftedness, without courage, is a waste.
In Acts 7, we find a man with convictional courage. His name was Stephen. He was the first Christian martyr. And yet, the focus of the text is not on the fact that Stephen was martyred, but rather on the results of Stephen’s courageous willingness to die for Christ.
The Courage to Live the Right Story
Something we need to know about Stephen is that he was a deacon in the church. Stephen was known as a servant, not a teacher. And yet, we find him giving a detailed Biblical history account that he then applies to his interrogators. Stephen was arrested on trumped up charges of speaking against the Law and the Temple. And when he was given his opportunity to defend himself, we should note that his defense is not really a defense of himself, but rather a defense of Christ. He explains the whole history of Israel and at the end, he backloads the application. “You may know the events,” Stephen is saying to them, “but you do not know what they mean.” Stephen is telling them that all the promises of God are Yes and Amen in Jesus Christ.
What is absolutely amazing is that Stephen does all of this from memory. He’s not pulling out his Greek Standard Version Study Scroll and using the study notes to make all these connections. He doesn’t need to. Why? That’s the story he lives. If you were to ask me questions about my family, I’m not going to need to go do some research and get back to you. That’s my life. The story Stephen recounts is his story. It’s part of him.
His interrogators lived a different story. They believed the Law was a means to gain righteousness. They believed the Temple contained the glory of God. But Stephen is saying, “I live a different story.” You get the story wrong if you don’t see Jesus as the center and the goal. But when you get it right, you understand, as Stephen did, that suffering makes sense. For even our Lord and Master was crucified. Why would we expect comfort and ease? Stephen understood that his proclamation was not likely to end with him being carried off to cheers and adoration. He knew that persecution was coming as a result. But that made sense to him within the story he was living.
The Courage to Choose Mercy over Judgment
The response to Stephen’s exhortation was hate. They were “enraged” and “ground their teeth.” And as they were stoning him, Stephen makes two statements that should sound familiar to us. First, he says, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” That sounds a lot like Jesus on the cross, “Father, into your hands, I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46). Second, Stephen says “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Again, this sounds like what Jesus said from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). While they are bashing Stephen’s head in with rocks, he is pleading for the mercy of God on their behalf. What power!
The power of mercy and love is much stronger than the power of hate. And love and mercy will reign forever when hate is cast away into outer darkness. Stephen loved his enemies. He wants them to know mercy, not judgment. He is dying, literally, so that they would know the Gospel truth.
There is a powerful word for us in his example. If you merely hate your cultural enemies, you are imaging Satan. We must stand against many things in our culture because we love our neighbors and know the truth of scripture, but our goal, in the end, is not the destruction of our cultural opponents, it is their salvation. You will not be on gospel mission for someone that you hate. Love your enemies. That’s not a religious cliche, that’s a life purpose. It is not dependent on giftedness and intelligence but it is dependent on gospel courage.