54 Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him. 55 But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” 57 But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed togetherat him. 58 Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.
1) Stephen speaks to his accusers about their sin, but he also speaks to God about their forgiveness. Stephen says, “you stiff-necked people” and yet also says, “Lord Jesus, do not hold this sin against them.” For Stephen, forgiveness and confrontation were not necessarily at odds. This helps me understand the nature of forgiveness more clearly. Forgiveness is not a denial of wrongdoing, its a releasing of payment for that wronging. That is one of the reason I think the phrase “forgive and forget” can be misleading (depending on what someone means by it). Perhaps forgetting and overlooking is sometimes a part of forgiveness, especially in smaller, every day matters. But in more serious cases, it seems to me that in order to truly say, “I forgive you,” we need to first acknowledge (whether out loud or not), “this is wrong.” After all, if nothing is acknowledged as wrong, what is there to forgive?
2) What I love about this story is that even in the midst of terrible circumstances, Stephen has his eyes on Jesus. While the stones are killing him, his eyes are on Jesus, not the stones. And that is how he suffers well. That is how he forgives. Stephen was the first martyr, and in some ways I think he can also be see as a prototype for all future martyrs and sufferers. When we are suffering, we need to look at Jesus. We need to have our eyes lifted up from our circumstances (our “stones”) and see into the heavenly realm with the eyes of faith. This the only way to experience the joy amidst suffering which the New Testament repeatedly calls us towards, and which is impossible in our own strength. I love this quote from Samuel Rutherford. It reminds me of how seeing Jesus can transform our perspective about our suffering:
“My Lord Jesus has fully recompensed my sadness with his joys, my losses with his own presence. I find it a sweet and rich thing to exchange my sorrows with Christ’s joys, my afflictions with that sweet peace I have with himself.”