“They continued to stone Stephen while he prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!’ Then he fell to his knees and cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them!’ When he had said this, he died.” (Acts 7:59-60, New English Translation)
Acts 6 and 7 introduce us to two notable New Testament men: Stephen, the first Christian martyr, and Saul, who passionately persecuted the young church. Under different circumstance, the two may have become good friends. Both were Greek-speaking Jews born elsewhere but now living in Jerusalem. Both were passionate about their faith. Perhaps they were even similar in age, although that is unknown. They may have even passed each other on the busy streets of Jerusalem as they went about their daily routines. We will never know.
The Fateful Meeting
We do know the result of their final, and perhaps only, meeting. Stephen died and Saul approved of his death (Acts 22:20).
There is one other important point we cannot forget about that day. Stephen offered a simple but powerful prayer of forgiveness for all those involved in his death.
Things changed rapidly after Stephen’s stoning. Persecution grew intense, and believers scattered—taking their faith with them. What Saul and others sought to stop could not be stopped. The gospel spread everywhere.
But here’s what I’ve wondered. Did Stephen’s last words—that prayer of forgiveness offered with his dying breath—haunt Saul? Could he ignore the power of forgiveness, even if he had not asked for that forgiveness? Could he really forget what he heard in Stephen’s dying words? Charles H. Spurgeon, the noted 19th Century preacher, stated, “If Stephen had not prayed, Paul had never preached.”
Choosing to Forgive
Forgiveness is not easy, even when our circumstances are not as dire as Stephen’s. In our humanity, deeply hurt at being wronged, it’s so easy to want to lash out at the offender. We want to see them suffer as we have suffered. We want revenge. But these thoughts are crippling to us more than the other person. When we hold onto the hurts, that person still has power over us. We cannot move into the future while chained to the past.
Forgiveness does not mean their action was not wrong; it does mean I refuse to let it hold power over my life.
Although Saul probably did not recognize the power of what he saw that day, he witnessed an amazing example of true Christian forgiveness. I must believe it had a later influence in his life. He includes the story as part of his testimony in Acts 22.
Can we really hold onto unforgiveness when we have been wronged? Isn’t our forgiveness, even if not asked for or well received, a testimony of the work God is doing in our own lives? We may never fully know the effect of our forgiveness in the future of that person who wronged us. It isn’t necessary we know. But it frees that person to accept what God desires to do in their life if they are willing. After all, fire-breathing Saul was transformed into fire-preaching Paul.
Prayer: Lord, if I truly want to make a positive influence in the lives of others, I must be willing to demonstrate forgiveness. I cannot hold grudges or seek revenge. This is not what You did at the cross nor what Stephen did when stoned. Through Your Spirit, I can let go of my pain and allow You to work in my life and theirs.