Courage for the Crucible

Fiery Furnace

Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), and of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of those from Cilicia and Asia, rose up and disputed with Stephen. But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking.

Acts 6:9-10

Crab Mentality explains a childhood phenomenon I often experienced. Summer days with my grandmother along Florida’s northern gulf coast began at dawn by setting crab traps. Normally, by mid-afternoon, the Intracoastal waterway of Perdido Key had provided a briny bounty of Blue Crabs for our supper. While harvesting, my grandmother would carefully place each of the cantankerous crustaceans in a bucket from which there was no escape. Why did none of them ever escape? Was it because the bucket was too deep or because crabs are unskilled climbers? Perhaps, but crab mentality offers a different explanation. It has been observed that crabs remain in a bucket or other container because as one begins to escape, the others pull him down. Their instinctual desire for collective demise as much as our taste for shellfish prepared them for the boiling cauldron of grandma’s crucible.

How do you face the “crabs” of life? Stephen faced them with courage.

Spiritual crab mentality may explain what got Stephen into so much hot water. Greek-speaking Jews from Africa, Asia Minor, and Europe “rose up” to dispute with Deacon Stephen. Ironically, those who raised the claw of disagreement with Stephen were his own people! In a very short interval, the same people he stood up for (Acts 6:1-6), stood up against Stephen. When his Spirit-inspired wisdom defeated their arguments, the crowd’s verbal sparring quickly boiled over into violence and he was dragged down to the Sanhedrin (Acts 6:12). However, while Stephen was personally in the hot seat, he represented the faith of the whole Church.

When the opposition can’t stand up, they stir up. Because the crowd could not stand up to Stephen, they stirred up trouble. In as much as the Sanhedrin was the Supreme Court of Israel, the evidence produced against Stephen was suborned perjury. No matter how unjustly the case was made against Stephen, we must not lose sight of the truth being weighed in the balance. He was on trial for the Gospel’s sake. Because of the specific false testimony brought to bear against him, we must infer that Stephen preached Jesus as Messiah who alone accomplished what the Law and Temple were inadequate to do together—save God’s people. We know Jesus predicted the destruction of the Temple (Luke 21:6) but never said he was the destroyer. Similarly, he said, “I have not come to destroy the Law, but fulfill it” (Matthew 5:17-18). Stephen won the dispute. Truth and angels were on his side. However, courage isn’t measured when we avoid unjust punishment by winning. Courage is measured when we face unjust punishment for winning. The crowd was made up of different people, but the same Sanhedrin which crucified Jesus put Stephen in the crucible.

Have you ever won an argument, but suffered for it? Jesus promised his disciples that they would suffer persecution for him by being brought before secular and religious authorities (Luke 21:12-15). The purpose of the persecution was so that they—and we—would be witnesses. In the same passage, Jesus further promises his followers “words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict.” Jesus promises the persecuted that they will win the argument and that they will suffer the consequences, even unto death (Luke 21:16-19). Jesus won every argument about who he was and why he came, but he still suffered and died. So did Stephen. Only righteous courage can suffer innocently.

Edmond Dantes was innocent. The Count of Monte Cristo tells the story of an innocent man who is put into the crucible of suffering by an envious friend. Being falsely accused of a treasonous conspiracy with Napoleon against France, Dantes is sent, without trial, to the prison island of Chateau d’If. Upon arrival, Dantes plead with the warden, “Monsieur, I know you must hear this a great deal; I assure you I am innocent. Everyone must say that I know, but I truly am.” Unmoved, the warden responded, “Innocent? …I know. I really do know…I know perfectly well that you are innocent. Why else would you be here? If you were truly guilty, there are a hundred prisons in France where they would lock you away. But Chateau d’If is where they put the ones they’re ashamed of.” Through the crucible of innocent suffering, Edmond Dantes learned courage. So did Stephen.

Courage transforms suffering. The courage to meet suffering—especially innocent suffering—is uniquely available in the cross of Christ. Jesus went to the cross and to the grave, but he did not stay there—he passed through. If you are suffering innocently, remember the crucible will not hold you any more than the grave held Jesus. For those who believe, the crucible is not the destination, glory is! Take courage, you are passing through.

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Character for the Crucible

Fiery Furnace

Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people.

Acts 6:8

The Crucible is a final exam every recruit must undergo before becoming a United States Marine. Fifty-four hours of sleep and food deprivation are combined with forty-five miles of forced marches, assault courses, leadership responses, and team-building stations. The Corps designed the most rigorous assessment imaginable to evaluate each recruits’ physical ability, mental aptitude, and strength of character. Perhaps they understand that silver and gold are made pure, sand is made glass, carbon is made diamond, and Marines are made—few and proud—in the crucible. Into what is the Church made when she is placed in the crucible?

Being precedes doing. The order of Stephen’s attributes is important. Stephen’s character is summarized in five short words: “full of grace and power”. Grace did not arise as an outworking of power, but power was born of grace. Grace in the life of a Christian is primary. Before we read about what he did, we learn about who he was. Stephen was completely full of God’s grace and power. Grace is the undeserved goodness of God or the divine influence upon the heart causing belief. Grace (or charis) is the Greek word from which we derive the English word charismatic. Stephen was charismatic. He had the full measure of God’s goodness which gave rise to a superhuman faith.

Stephen was full of God’s grace and power. Of what are you full?

Indwelling grace precedes outworking greatness. Stephan “was doing great wonders and signs among the people”. In the previous verse, we are told that Stephen was the first of seven deacons chosen to “serve tables” (Acts 6:2), but the criteria by which he was chosen was not his training or natural ability to serve. The apostles gave spiritual and not necessarily pragmatic instructions for selecting deacons: brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty.” For the apostles, the primary qualification for serving as an officer in the Church was not doing great things, but rather being “great” with Holy Spirit (Luke 2:5). Stephen’s character and great works are evidence that the apostles believed there was no ethnic discrimination with the Holy Spirit. Hebrews were not preferred by God over Hellenists. The same grace, power, and wonders performed by Peter were performed by Stephen because they were filled with the same Spirit. However, all the great things Stephen was and all the great things he did were not produced by but prepared for the crucible.

Grace built a bridge. Who was Stephen and what did he accomplish? He was a Greek-speaking Jew, from outside Israel, who was perhaps of mixed parentage. His diaconal ministry (Acts 6) was short-lived as he was the Church’s first martyr (Acts 7). However, Stephen was also the bridge to the Greek-speaking world. Peter was the apostle to the Jews and Paul to the Gentiles (Galatians 2:7-9), but how was it that Paul was prepared to preach the gospel to the Gentiles? In part, by Stephen. Peter and the apostles laid hands on Stephen and appointed him as a deacon to the Greek-speaking widows of the Church, thereby shattering a spiritual glass ceiling previously established in Judaism. Similarly, Saul (Paul) of Tarsus was a zealous, Greek-speaking Pharisee from outside Israel. In his zeal, he murderously persecuted the Church and is introduced in the New Testament as an approving witness to those who stoned Stephen (Acts 7:58). Certainly, Paul never forgot and perhaps regularly relived the shame and glory of Stephen’s martyrdom (Acts 22:4-5, 1 Corinthians 15:8-9, 1 Timothy 1:12-14). God made Stephan for many wonderful reasons; one of the greatest is the bridge He forged through his crucible.

John Paton had character for the crucible. In 1839, John Williams and James Harris were sent by the London Missionary Society to evangelize the people living in the islands now known as Vanuatu. Minutes after landing on the beach, they were killed and eaten by the cannibals who inhabited the island. Nineteen years later, John Paton, a young Presbyterian missionary from Scotland, was inspired by the sacrifice of Williams and Harris and filled with missionary zeal for the savages of Vanuatu. Believing the islands belonged to God, Paton prepared for his mission. His ministry in the islands was difficult and often life-threatening, but by the end of his life, more than fifty years later, thousands of former savages were serving Christ. However, before all of the victories, God prepared John Paton’s character for the crucible of ministry to cannibals. While raising support among the churches of Scotland, a Mr. Dickson objected to Paton’s missionary vision on the basis of safety by saying, “The cannibals! You will be eaten by cannibals!” Paton’s response is refined gold:

Mr. Dickson, you are advanced in years now, and your own prospect is soon to be laid in the grave, there to be eaten by worms; I confess to you, that if I can but live and die serving and honoring the Lord Jesus, it will make no difference to me whether I am eaten by Cannibals or by worms; and in the Great Day my Resurrection body will rise as fair as yours in the likeness of our risen Redeemer.

Like Jesus before them, God prepared Stephen and John Paton for the crucible. For what crucible is He preparing you?

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Multiplication of Mercy (pt 2)

And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.

Acts 6:7

William Shakespeare is highly regarded as a poet and playwright, not a theologian. But “The Bard’s” truth was as well-metered as his iambic pentameter when he penned, “The quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed: It blesseth him that gives and him that takes. ‘Tis mightiest in the mightiest…It is an attribute to God himself” (The Merchant of Venice, act iv, scene 1). The Gospel is an act of God’s mercy. The Acts of the Apostles and all the players in His story continue it.

Mercy goes. After the rich mercy of Christ was poured out on poor widows (Acts 6:1-5), priests came to faith in great numbers. This detail may be passed over in a casual read of Acts 6:7, but it is as important as ironic. The priests mercilessly condemned Jesus to death and persecuted his church (Mark 14:53-65, Acts 4:1-3). A merciless priest seems rather oxymoronic, but the priests in Jerusalem’s Temple treated Jesus with contempt and then visited the same contempt on destitute widows who believed in him. Priests directed the mercy ministry in Judaism and were the ones who managed the daily distribution of food to the poor. The mercy-managing priests denied benefits to widows who then turned to the Church for mercy but were met with cultural prejudice. Once the Twelve ordained deacons—thus ending mercy discrimination—large numbers of priests became “obedient” to the Christian faith. Why? The priests were won when the Church demonstrated God’s mercy by His Word and their work. Priests were confronted in their disobedience to God by the merciful work of the faithful. Perhaps for the first time, they experienced the richness of God’s undeserved mercy. Mercy always goes after the undeserving.

Mercy knows. What is mercy—God’s mercy? God’s mercy is of a wholly different quality than the man-made variety. We often erroneously conceive of mercy being “deserved” and so we discriminate in our practice of mercy. However, if it is owed, then by its very nature, it cannot be mercy. When my sons were very young, I defined justice, mercy, and grace for them in the following way: justice is when you receive exactly what you deserve; mercy is when you don’t receive something bad you do deserve; grace is when you receive something good you don’t deserve. Max Lucado says, “Favor won is no favor. Mercy deserved is no mercy” (Priceless Parables). When the poor ask for assistance, the merciless respond with the justice of “should”: You should have saved money for a “rainy day”. You should get a job. You should ask your family for help first. You should turn to the government. Mercy doesn’t should people. Mercy stands in the middle between justice and grace. However, mercy doesn’t push the needy back to what is deserved (justice) but moves them forward into what is undeserved (grace). Like Jesus’ cross, mercy knows best how to make justice and grace meet in the middle.

Mercy shows. I once heard a sales manager give his trainee the following advice about selling a particular product: “Don’t just tell them what it is, show them what it does!” Perhaps the same relationship exists in the Church between preaching and practicing God’s mercy. After all, “Faith without works is dead”, so we preach the Word in Christian worship so that we may live the Word in the world. Jesus didn’t just preach mercy on the Mount of Olives, He practiced mercy on Mount Calvary.

Mercy owes. US Air National Guard Lieutenant Colonel Frank Daily was the recipient of an unexpected act of mercy while eating lunch at a restaurant with his family. When his check came he received a $20 bill wrapped in a note from an eight-year-old boy. The note read, “Dear soldier, my dad was a soldier. He’s in heaven now. I found this $20 in the parking lot when we got here. We like to pay it forward in my family. It’s your lucky day! Thank you for your service. Myles Eckert, a Gold Star kid.”

Mercy pays it forward; so does mercy’s family.

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