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. — Acts 7:59-60
The power of God to put a forgiving spirit in the human heart is wonderfully exemplified in the life story of Jim, an ex-convict known for many years as “Forty-five” — a man who spent twenty-five years in prison at hard labor for a crime he did not commit.
At the age of sixteen, Forty-five left his home in Rhode Island and headed west. One night he rode into the city of Tacoma, Washington, in a boxcar, reaching there just when a murder had been committed. He was arrested, tried, and sentenced to twenty-five years at hard labor.
In the penitentiary, Forty-five suffered all the severity of punishment meted out to desperate criminals in those days, including solitary confinement, rations of bread and water, being shackled by a ball and chain, and thirty lashes at a whipping post. After serving eighteen years of his sentence, he was transferred to the prison hospital, where he worked for the remainder of his term.
Upon his release, Forty-five was nearly wrecked in body and mind, homeless, and friendless. He took a train to Portland, Oregon, where he wandered the streets for four days looking for work, with nothing to eat and no place to sleep except the lumber piles. At last he went onto the Burnside Bridge intending to jump into the Willamette River. Just as he climbed up on the railing, a bridge keeper came rushing to him and pulled him down. As Forty-five walked away, he noticed the large lighted sign on the Apostolic Faith Church a short distance away. An unseen power seemed to compel him to attend a service there. At the close of the meeting, Forty-five went to the altar, prayed, and God saved him.
About two years later, as he was testifying in a service about his experiences and conversion, a man sat listening in the back of the church with tears flowing down his cheeks. Someone who talked with the man later told Forty-five that this stranger knew something about him. After tracing the man to San Francisco, California, Forty-five learned that he was dying of tuberculosis in a hospital there.
Forty-five took a job in the hospital, and had an opportunity to converse with the stranger. One night the sick man asked to have the Bible read to him, so Forty-five read aloud the story of the Prodigal Son. Then the man looked at Forty-five and asked, “Can you ever forgive me for the wrong I have done you?” Brokenly, he confessed that he was the man who committed the murder that had sent Forty-five to prison.
Forty-five’s thoughts immediately went to the long years he had spent in confinement and all that he had suffered. Could he forgive? He left the sick man and went into a little room where he could be alone. Kneeling down, he prayed and wrestled with God for nearly three hours, asking God to put a real spirit of forgiveness in his heart. At last he went back to the sick man’s room and took the dying man in his arms. He said, “I forgive you for all the injuries you have done me, but you will also have to ask God to forgive you.” The man began to cry out, over and over, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” God heard that broken plea and saved his soul. Three days later the man died, but because of Forty-five’s witness, he is spending eternity with the Lord.
Forty-five’s forgiveness of one who had caused him to suffer so terribly could only come from God. We see the same merciful spirit exemplified by Stephen, when he prayed the words of our key verse, “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge,” as the stones were pummeling his body.
Though most of us will never suffer as Forty-five and Stephen did, there may have been events in our lives that were hard, that were wrong, that have deeply wounded us and are difficult to forgive. We can have the same freedom from bitterness and revenge that was in the hearts of Forty-five and Stephen. They could forgive because they had experienced the Lord’s merciful forgiveness of their own sins. If we hold fast to the remembrance of the infinite debt our Lord Jesus forgave us through His death on the Cross, we will be able with God’s help to forgive others, even at great cost to ourselves. Let us purpose to hold no resentment in our hearts, but to live every day forgiving as freely as we have been forgiven.
The charges brought against Stephen are relayed in Acts 6:11 and 13-14. Firstly, his accusers claimed that he spoke blasphemous words against Moses and the Law, and tried to change Jewish customs. Secondly, they asserted that he spoke blasphemous words against God and God’s dwelling place, the Temple. Stephen had begun his defense before the council by giving a historical account of God’s dealings with the Jewish people through events in the lives of Abraham, Joseph, and Moses. In this portion of text, he traced the forefathers of Israel’s faith through Moses, Joshua (translated as “Jesus”), and David (verses 30-47). The chapter ends with the irate response of his hearers, and Stephen’s martyrdom by stoning (verses 54-60).
Throughout Stephen’s speech, he repeatedly alluded to Israel’s continual rebellion and idolatry in spite of the mighty works of God which they had seen, thus condemning them through their own history.
In verse 38, the word translated “church” in the phrase “church in the wilderness” is from the Greek word ekklesia, meaning “assembly of the called out ones.” Here it was a reference to the assembly of people that gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai.
In verses 42-43, Stephen asserted that Israel’s rejection of Moses had led to false worship and breaking of the Law, so God “gave them up” to their worship of the host of heaven (the sun, moon, and stars) and their gods Molech (associated with child sacrifice) and Remphan (an Egyptian god). The statement “as it is written in the book of the prophets” is a reference to Amos 5:25-27.
In verses 44-50, Stephen pointed out that even though the Jews had the Tabernacle in the wilderness, and later the Temple in Jerusalem, that had not kept them from rejecting God and His messengers. While the Jews insisted that the Temple at Jerusalem was the only place where the Divine Presence was manifested, Stephen asserted that neither the Temple nor the Tabernacle were intended to be the place where God permanently dwelt. To support his statement, he pointed once more to the Old Testament, this time quoting Isaiah 66:1-2.
At verse 51, Stephen’s tone abruptly shifted to that of a prosecutor. Some Bible scholars suggest that perhaps his sudden change in approach may have been caused by an angry outcry against what he had just said about the Temple. His charge that his hearers were “stiffnecked” was a description that had been applied to the Jews by God himself (see Exodus 33:5). The phrase “uncircumcised in heart and ears” meant that they had rebelled against the message God had revealed through the prophets, shutting their ears to the truth and thus disavowing their relationship with God. Because of this they were unclean and defiled.
The members of the Sanhedrin responded to Stephen’s reproof with vehement anger. In the statement that they “were cut to the heart” (verse 54), the verb literally means “to saw asunder.” In further witness to their burning hatred, they “gnashed on him with their teeth.”
The Jews had no legal authority to carry out a death sentence, so Stephen’s execution was illegal; it took place during a power vacuum between the departure of Pontius Pilate as Roman governor and the arrival of his successor. Like his Savior, Stephen was executed outside the city wall. Even in this miscarriage of justice, Stephen’s murderers adhered to the Mosaic Law, which decreed that the sin of blasphemy was to be punished by a death sentence.
Stephen finished his life by committing his soul to the Lord and devoutly praying for his persecutors.
(Hannah’s Bible Outlines - Used by permission per WORDsearch)
II. The witness in Jerusalem
D. The witness of Stephen
3. The sermon by Stephen
b. His defense concerning Moses
(4) The commission of the deliverer (7:30-34)
(5) The work of the deliverer (7:35-43)
c. His defense concerning the Tabernacle (7:44-50)
(1) The Tabernacle (7:44-46)
(2) The Temple (7:47-50)
d. His denunciation of his accusers (7:51-53)
4. The stoning of Stephen
a. The death of Stephen (7:54-60)
The grace to forgive can be ours when we remember how much we have been forgiven.