AFTER JESUS DIED, it took a while for his followers to settle down and get organized, and the process was no easier then than it has been ever since. One problem that came up early in the game was how to take care of the poor, especially the widows who couldn't support themselves. The apostles decided to appoint a group to handle this side of things, and one of the ones they appointed was Stephen.

His career was a short one. In addition to doing what he could for the poor, he also did what he could to spread the word about Jesus, the one who'd gotten him interested in the poor in the first place. He healed, and he preached, and he talked about how his own life had been changed, and it wasn't long before the Jewish authorities called him on the mat to defend his far-out views as best he could. As far as they were concerned, he was a bad apple.

Stephen made them a long speech, the gist of which was that from year one the Jews had always been an ornery lot, "stiff-necked," he said, and circumcised as all get-out in one department, but as cussed and mean as everybody else in all the others (Acts 7:51). They'd given Moses a hard time in the wilderness, he said, and there hadn't been a saint or prophet since whom they hadn't had it in for. The way they'd treated Jesus was the last and worst example of how they were always not just missing the boat, but doing their damnedest to sink it. The authorities were naturally enraged and illustrated the accuracy of Stephen's analysis of them by taking him out and stoning him to death.

Stoning somebody to death, especially somebody as young and healthy as Stephen, isn't easy. You don't get the job done with the first few rocks and broken bottles, and even after you've got the person down, it's a long, hot business. To prepare themselves for the workout, they stripped to the waist and got somebody to keep an eye on their things till they were through. The one they got was a young fire-breathing arch-conservative Jew named Saul, who was there because he thoroughly approved of what they were doing.

It was a scene that Saul never forgot. Years later when he'd become a Christian himself and was under arrest much as Stephen had been, he spoke of it. He wasn't called Saul anymore by then, but Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, the great letter-writing saint, and he still remembered how it had been that day when he'd stood guard over the pile of coats and ties and watched a young man's death.

Stephen was the first person to shed blood for the new faith he loved more than his life, and as Saul-who-was-to-become-Paul watched the grim process, it never occurred to him that by the grace of God the time was not far off when he himself would be another.

Acts 6-7; 22:20

-Originally published in Peculiar Treasures and later in Beyond Words 

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