Then they cried out with a loud voice, stopped their ears, and ran at him with one accord; and they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul. And they stoned Stephen as he was calling on God and saying, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.
The summer is always a loud season in my neighborhood. On some rare evenings the only sound is that of cars driving down the street. The remaining nights, which are almost every night between May and September, the air is filled with the sounds of fireworks and loud music and people who stay up all night. When the commotion keeps me up and I cannot get the sleep I desperately need, all compassion leaves me. I have found myself transitioning from praying for the music to stop to wishing that the car blaring the music would meet a disastrous end. How interesting and surprising it is that I would harbor such ill will for such a minor offense!
The last words of Stephen might seem like a contrast from the words he had been speaking only moments earlier. Just like John the Baptist, Stephen was confronting some influential people with very difficult and harsh truths. Also like John, he was coming from a place of conviction and not condemnation, but his words were not received as such. When the evil people he was trying to correct decided that they had had enough of his preaching, they turned to rend him like wild dogs and pigs who do not appreciate the treasures and pearls we carry. Right there, in what we might say was the most wicked moment of those evil people, Stephen did not act in resentment or offense. Instead, he prayed for those who were murdering him.
There really is no contrast between Stephen’s hard words of correction and his compassionate prayers for God to spare his attackers. His rebuke might have seemed harsh, but it actually was loving. He was operating within the will of God to bring conviction and revelation to people who desperately needed it. When Stephen prayed for those very people to be forgiven for taking his life, he was doing the same thing. He was living as Christ in him and mirroring the same manner in which his Savior left this life. He looked beyond their sin and treacherousness, and he cried out for their lost souls even as they were trying to destroy him. Father, teach us to walk as Christ walked in the face of his enemies, as Stephen walked in honor of his Savior.