Sunday, June 10, 2007

Standing in the Face of Conflict

Do you consider yourself a bold witness for Christ? Do you stand for Jesus in the face of opposition? Are you willing to stand for Jesus even if it means ending your life? Stephen was.

Stephen is first mentioned in Acts 6:5 when the twelve disciples were seeing a need to have helpers to carry out the work of the church. Stephen was first described here as “a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit”. Full. There was no room for anything else. His personality was nothing but faith and the Spirit of God’s presence through him. To have a problem with Stephen was to have a problem with God.

In Acts 6:10 we read that the Freedmen “…were not able to resist the wisdom and the Spirit by which he spoke.” Even though they couldn’t resist or deny the truth which he spoke, they wouldn’t accept it because their pride had gotten in the way.

Their discussion of Jesus had gone from a discussion to an argument. At the point you begin to argue a point, you become personally invested. Pride sets in with an “I know I’m right” stand. This is what had happened with the Freedmen. Their hearts were closed because they couldn’t move their pride out of the way. Instead of accepting the truth, the Freedmen chose to destroy it, to try to remove it from their life. They delivered Stephen to stand before the Sanhedrin council.

Imagine how you would have felt being brought before the very council that had days earlier handed Jesus over to be crucified. Stephen was not only in the presence of opposition – he was before those who routinely killed Christians. He must have realized that his life was in danger. Saul was there, and his reputation was widely known. But this did not change Stephen’s stand for Christ.

Stephen preached to the Sanhedrin council the history of the Israelite people’s past from Abraham to Moses to the current day. He preached to them of how the Israelites had worshiped other gods and the stars while in the wilderness, and made a mockery of God. Then he began to step on their toes! He got personal!

In Acts 7:51-53 Stephen said to them “You stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears! You always resist the Holy Spirit; as your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who foretold the coming of the Just One, of whom you now have become the betrayers and murderers, who have received the law by the direction of angels and have not kept it.”

He said they were “uncircumcised in heart”. Circumcision was part of the Abrahamic covenant (promise) between God and the Israelite people. It was to show that they were in agreement with God’s promise to Abraham that his ancestors would be God’s people and would rise up and multiply. In saying that the Sanhedrin was “uncircumcised in heart”, Stephen was saying that within their hearts, they were not God’s people because they refused the truth. He called them murderers in that they had handed over Christ to be crucified. He told them that they had rejected the truth that had even been delivered to them from the mouths of Angels.

Was Stephen wrong to make it personal with the Sanhedrin? No! That’s what we are supposed to do today. We are to show the lost world their sins, and give them the truth so they can find forgiveness. Yet way too often we chose to avoid the conflict, to “sugar coat” God’s word, and to brush over sin with large paint strokes of pretty words. We are afraid of how “we” will look to others, and what others will think of “us”.

Stephen stood strong in the face of conflict because he knew whom he was standing for. When your focus is moved from you to Jesus, you will become bold enough in your faith to create conflict when there is no other way to present the truth. The Bible tells us to be “wise as serpents”, finding the best way to admonish and correct, and to be “harmless as doves”, whereas we should not seek to harm those that are non-believers. But the Bible never says to disguise the truth, or hide it. Stephen was inspired by the Holy Spirit, with which he was filled, to present the truth. As he reproved the Sanhedrin for Jesus’ murder, he looked up and in Acts 7:56 he said “Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” Stephen got a standing ovation from Jesus Christ!

Jesus showed strong approval of Stephen’s actions. Some of us might find this a point of boasting, and say “Hey, did I tell you about the time Jesus was so impressed with me he stood up in recognition of my work?” Stephen was not prideful. In fact he remained filled with the Holy Spirit in such a way as to mimic Jesus even at the very end. As he was being stoned, Stephen knelt down and prayed. He prayed in Acts 7:59, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin.” Just as Jesus prayed for his enemies from the cross in Luke 23:34 and said “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do”, Stephen wanted to offer forgiveness and mercy to his enemies. This shows where his heart was. He wasn’t condemning the Sanhedrin to be mean. He was doing it out of love.

Standing in the face of conflict does not have to mean being obstinate, getting an attitude, and being arrogant. Standing for truth is simple. You present the truth from God’s Holy Word, which is the undeniable truth. You are only the mouthpiece. Not everyone will accept it as Stephen found out, but we are told to preach the good news, and that is our responsibility. God alone will make believers. Anything past the delivery of God’s word is out of your hands.

Father God, help us that we would never shrink from your truth for the sake of avoiding conflict. Help us to look past the conflict to the time when we will be held accountable for our sins – those of commission and omission. Give us wisdom to always present the truth harmlessly. But where this cannot be done, help us never to back down or back out of the role you have given us in your service. In Jesus Holy Name, Amen.

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