Can you imagine the scene and the ensuing conversation when the apostle Paul ran into Stephen for the first time in Paradise, not having seen him since he participated in Stephen’s martyrdom by stoning in Jerusalem?

Before we listen in on their conversation, I want to share a little bit about Stephen, as I did last night at the Broken Arrow church in our Cloud of Witnesses study.

There is so much more to Stephen than merely being the answer to a couple of Bible Trivia questions.  The Holy Spirit and Luke only wrote a brief scene for him in the unfolding drama of the early church as recorded in the book of Acts, but what a scene it was!  His name does not appear before Acts 6, and he is only mentioned in passing after Acts 7.  Yet, Stephen’s life and violent death prove to be a critical turning point in the spread of the Christian faith from Jerusalem to the remotest parts of the earth.  There a few people in Scripture about whom so much is revealed regarding their character and heart.  There is a highly disproportionate amount of “character development” provided for Stephen given the relative brevity of the scene in which he appears.

Stephen met the “faith and character qualifications” of being “of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom” (Acts 6:3) in the search for leaders to oversee the equitable distribution of daily food to the many widows in the Jerusalem church.  He was well-known among the people and greatly respected.  He is further described as “full of faith and of the Holy Spirit” (6:5), “full of grace and power” (6:8), and was a skilled apologist and evangelist who spoke with convicting words of “wisdom and the Spirit” (6:10).  He was also a miracle worker, performing mighty signs and wonders by the power of the Spirit (6:8).

Additionally, due to the nature of the ministry and challenge that he and the six other “proto-deacons” were tasked with overseeing, Stephen undoubtedly possessed a wide range of other valuable “people skills”:  peacemaking and bridge-building abilities, administrative skills, and the humility necessary to be a team player, working alongside Philip and the others in compassionately caring for the needs of these widows.

When opposition to Stephen’s ministry reached a fever pitch and he was hauled before the Sanhedrin for interrogation, Luke records that the members of the Council “saw his face like the face of an angel” (Acts 6:15).  I’m not exactly sure what that means, but it probably wasn’t a comparison to the impish smirk of a chubby cherub or the hard-set face of a destroying angel.  It likely refers to a countenance of calm, a look of peace, serenity, and confidence that shone like a light in this context of hostility and aggression.

How did Luke know what Stephen’s face looked like in the perception of the members of the Council?  While it is certainly a detail that could have been provided by the Holy Spirit, it is highly probable that this insight was shared with Luke by the apostle Paul, who was undoubtedly present during Stephen’s trial and still known at the time by his Hebrew name, Saul.  Among those in the Synagogue of the Freedmen who brought charges against Stephen (6:9-14) were men from Cilicia, the region of Saul’s hometown of Tarsus. At the end of the scene, the cloaks of those who stoned Stephen outside of Jerusalem are placed at Saul’s feet.  Paul may have related the story to Luke numerous times in their later travels together.

Years after the fact, Paul recalled, “And when the blood of Your witness Stephen was being shed, I also was standing by approving, and watching out for the coats of those who were slaying him,” (Acts 22:20).

Paul himself would ultimately be martyred for his faith in Christ, the same faith that led to Stephen’s death.  That’s where we pick up the conversation in Paradise.

Paul:  “Stephen?  It’s me, Saul!  Actually, you can call me Paul; most of my Christian friends do.  Hey, I am so sorry about what happened in Jerusalem.  I just stood there and let it happen.  But, at the time, I sincerely believed that you should die for your faith in Jesus.  Rather ironic, isn’t it?  Here I am, put to death for the very same reason.”

Stephen:  “Paul, seriously, don’t worry about it!  To be perfectly honest, I hadn’t planned on dying that day.  But, I’ve got to tell you, this place is incredible, totally unbelievable.  So, I really can’t complain about getting here a little earlier than I expected.”

Paul: “I know exactly what you mean.  I got a brief glimpse of this place several years ago in a vision, or maybe it wasn’t a vision, I could never tell for sure.  Anyway, it totally changed my perspective on things.  I even received a thorn in the flesh over it, just to keep me humble.  After that, I wrote to the brothers in Rome that our earthly afflictions can’t even be compared to the glory of this place.  I assured the church family in Philippi that to live was Christ, to die was gain, and to depart and be with the Lord was far better.  If they only knew!”

“But, seriously, Stephen, despite the beauty and glory and comfort of being here in the presence of Jesus, I just really need to know that you forgive me for my part in stoning you to death.  I know that you experienced incredible suffering and agony, and I’m sorry for that.  Please, forgive me.”

Stephen:  “Paul, I already did, brother!  Don’t you remember?  I let that go before I died.  And as far as God is concerned, that was part of all of the sin and baggage in your life that was washed away by the blood of Christ when Ananias baptized you.  I hope that you didn’t lose any sleep over this.”

While I’m not at all keen to suffer the kind of violent death that Stephen experienced, I can truly say that I want to die like Stephen.

Jesus had not only taught Stephen how to live, He also taught him how to die.

“Lord Jesus, receive my spirit,” (Acts 7:59).  “Lord, do not hold this sin against them,” (Acts 7:60).  Both of Stephen’s statements echo words spoken by Jesus during His suffering on the cross (Luke 23:34, 46).

I want to be able to face death with that kind of faith and confidence.  I want to have that same spirit of grace to release and forgive anyone who has wronged me for any reason.  I don’t need that kind of baggage on my final journey.

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