Stephen was the world’s first Christian martyr. He died for telling people about Jesus. His story teaches us that the Holy Spirit can gives us power for the most incredible task: forgiving someone who has genuinely wrecked our lives.
What Was Stephen’s Story?
Stephen was just a regular guy. We meet him first in Acts 6, in the context of a pretty boring church problem. After the ascension of Jesus, the early church experienced explosive growth. The apostles were preaching and healing throughout Jerusalem, and their attention was pulled in all directions. As with any successful organization, the early church struggled to keep up administratively with its rapid growth. The food program was failing, and some of the Christians started complaining to the apostles about it. So they formed a team of seven men to run the program. Stephen was the first guy on the list.
Though Stephen had a pretty boring job, he lived anything but a boring life. He performed miracles and taught with authority. And that drew the attention of the religious elite. He was arrested and falsely accused. Not one to pass up an opportunity to share the gospel, Stephen boldly preached to the Jewish leaders (see Acts 7). In anger, the high council seized him and began to stone him to death. Luke records his last words:
Acts 7:59-60 As they stoned him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” He fell to his knees, shouting, “Lord, don’t charge them with this sin!” And with that, he died.
Stephen’s Last Word Was “Forgiven”
The essence of Stephen’s final earthly utterance was to forgive his murderers. This is a surprising response, but not the first time it happens in the Bible. Jesus himself responded like this as he hung dying on the cross.
Luke 23:34 Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”
We Can Choose to Forgive Even the Extreme Cases
The lesson applies to all of us today. Forgiving a simple mistake is one thing. But forgiving a person who has intentionally wrecked your life is a different story. Both Jesus and Stephen did it, and it wasn’t a fluke. But how did they do it? Stephen’s story gives us a clue.
Acts 7:55-56 But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed steadily into heaven and saw the glory of God, and he saw Jesus standing in the place of honor at God’s right hand. And he told them, “Look, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing in the place of honor at God’s right hand!”
Stephen caught a glimpse of the bigger picture. Even as he was being brutally stoned to death on earth, he saw the other-world reality of heaven. Even as he was wrongly judged in an earthly court, he realized that his murderers would be judged in the court of heaven. And it moved him to feel pity on the men.
The Holy Spirit Empowers Our Radical Forgiveness
Often in the Old Testament, the Holy Spirit caused people to administer God’s wrath to his enemies (See Judges 15-16). In this story, the Holy Spirit did just the opposite. Instead of bringing destruction to the godless rabble in the story, the Holy Spirit came upon Stephen and caused him to respond with love. This is called “meekness” – a display of God’s power under control.
In his last words on earth, Stephen could have called down the curses of God onto his murderers. Instead he appealed to God’s mercy on their behalf, understanding the bigger picture for the sake of their souls. Are you able to forgive the people who have deeply impacted your life? Can you bring yourself to plead for their souls?
That’s what Stephen did.
- Watch the video together or invite someone to summarize the topic.
- Read Acts 6. What was the problem that the church faced? What principles does that story teach us?
- Have you ever experienced persecution of any form for your faith? Describe what happened and how you responded. Were you willing to forgive?
- Read Luke 23:34. How was Jesus’ response similar to Stephen’s? How was it different?
- Read Acts 7:55-56. Explain how this glimpse of heaven may have impacted the way Stephen experienced persecution on earth.
- How can an eternal perspective change your attitude in life?
- Acts 7 says Stephen was “full of the Holy Spirit.” What do you think that means? How might the story have ended if the Holy Spirit wasn’t a part of it?
- Who do you need to forgive today? What practical thing can you do to make it happen?
- Write a personal action step based on this conversation.