Last week we saw Paul and Stephen being attacked by angry mobs because they were both proclaiming that true Righteousness comes only through Jesus Christ and not by the keeping of the Law. Stephen died but Paul’s life was spared and it makes us wonder why that happens. Why did God rescue one but not the other? Why do some get healed and others do not? Why does God allow some to some live and others to die?
The reality is that we live in a sinful world and the horrible things that happen reflect the curse that sin brought upon the world in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve disobeyed God. Our God is not doing these things and He’s not trying to stop them. He’s not the cause of the trouble but He is a very present help in time of trouble. If we’ll trust the Lord to help us get through these things, He’ll help us get through them and move beyond them.
The more I have to deal with these questions, the more I become convinced that for believers, for those who are trusting in Jesus and have surrendered their lives completely to Him, the answers are somehow tied to the Great Commission. Jesus commanded us to go into all the world, starting at home. Preach the Gospel and make disciples. Baptize them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. All the things that happen to us as believers, all matters of life and death are tied into that Great Commission.
Paul said in 1 Corinthians 9:19 – “I have become a servant to everyone so I can bring them to Christ.” What the Lord does or does not do is less about what I believe or don’t believe; it’s less about how I pray or how fervently I pray. What the Lord chooses to do or not to do in any particular situation is all about bringing as many people to Christ as possible.
What will make a greater impact for Jesus and for the Kingdom of God? What will reach and touch the hearts of more people with the Gospel, especially those we’ve been praying for who are directly involved in this particular situation? What will do more to get them to start thinking about things like life and death, heaven and how to get there? What will do more to soften their hearts so they can hear and receive the gospel message – a miraculous healing, a normal medical recovery or no healing or recovery at all? What will do more to draw people to Jesus – a sensational deliverance or a victorious departure?
God is the only one who has the answers to these questions. He’s the only one who can see the end of everything from the beginning and whatever He decides to do is right. Instead of telling God what I think He should do, I’d better start asking Him to do whatever will bring Him the most glory; whatever will reach the most people; make the most disciples, bring the most to Jesus.
God needed someone to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles and Paul was the best candidate for the job. He knew the Scriptures. He was raised and educated as a Jew, but he was also a Roman citizen born in Tarsus. He grew up among Gentiles. He understood them. He could relate to them. They respected him. Paul was definitely someone God could use to bring the most Gentiles to Jesus. But, before that could happen, God needed someone to reach Paul and Stephen was the best one to do that.
Paul was there the day Stephen died. Acts 7:59 – 8:1a – “While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he fell on his knees and cried out, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ When he had said this, he fell asleep.” (Sleep is a Biblical way of indicating that physical death is only temporary.)“And Saul (Paul) was there giving approval to his death.”
He wasn’t throwing the stones. He was just holding the coats, but Paul “was in hearty agreement with putting Stephen to death.”(NASB) Paul “was right there congratulating the killers.”(The Message) He was cheering them on as the mob was throwing those stones.
When Paul was defending himself in front of that angry mob in Jerusalem, he said, “And when the blood of your martyr Stephen was shed, I stood there giving my approval and guarding the clothes of those who were killing him.” (Acts 22:20)
Paul never forgot the love he saw coming from Stephen as Stephen was preparing to die. He never forgot how much peace and assurance Stephen had in the face of death. He never forgot how Stephen prayed with his dying breath for his attackers to be forgiven. He never forgot the look on Stephen’s face as he died. The Bible says Stephen’s face was like the face of an angel and Paul could never get the look of Stephen’s face out of his mind.
Actually, I guess you could say Stephen did the most to bring all those Gentiles to Christ; to start all those churches and write all those letters, those Epistles to all those churches. Stephen did the most because he certainly paid the highest price. He gave the most. He was willing to die so others could find life in Jesus. If Stephen had not died the way he died, Paul might not have lived the way he lived or done the things he did. The New Testament could have been completely different.
God can use the death of someone we love very much to open up the heart and completely transform the life of someone we love just as much. Someone who was once alive on this earth may now be dead and in heaven with Jesus. But as a result of their death, someone who was once spiritually dead with no desire or no interest in God or eternity, may now be alive because of their faith in Jesus. Someone who was once held captive by an addiction may now be completely and permanently free.
“I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body , whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” Philippians 1:20-21
Lord willing, next week we’ll see more of how the Apostle Paul is finishing his race and completing the task the Lord has given him to do.