The stoning of Stephen has been painted by an impressive number of masters from Rembrandt to Rubens to Tintoretto. Perhaps you’ve seen one of them in a gallery?
As we study the composition, analyse the perspective and admire the depth of the colours, it is almost possible to disengage from the ugliness and brutality a stoning involves. This is a slow, messy, torturous way to die. Tragically it still happens today in some parts of the world.
As Stephen’s body is bruised, broken and crushed by rock after rock, he is not silent. He does not cry for mercy or plead for his life. He does not call down judgement or incite his supporters to violent protest. As Jesus did from the cross, he forgives his murderers and prays their actions wouldn’t be held against them by God. Most of us struggle to forgive for a long time after we’ve been hurt by someone. Stephen forgives instantaneously.
Jesus didn’t mince his words about forgiveness: ‘For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins’ (Matthew 6:14–15).
Forgiveness is core to discipleship; it is not an optional add-on.
Knowing we are to forgive is a first step, but actually doing it can feel impossible. Let’s consider Stephen’s example, which will help us see how it could be done, even in the most extreme of situations we might face.
Luke writes that Stephen was full of the Holy Spirit.
As the heat turned up around him and the crowd became dangerous, he remained calm and unafraid. We have this same Spirit living in us, and ‘the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline’ (2 Timothy 1:7). If we ask the Holy Spirit to help us let go of grudges, walk away from any plans to retaliate, and have compassion for our enemies, the Holy Spirit will help us.
Luke also tells us that Stephen had a vision of heaven. As though a heavy mist suddenly lifted, he was able to see ‘the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God’ (Acts 7:55).
Instead of seeing the high priest and the rest of the judges, he saw the only judge who mattered: a judge who had declared him righteous. He was able to forgive because he knew forgiveness