The Deep Well with Erin Davis Podcast

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Episode 5: The Hero Who Forgave

Erin Davis: Laura, who’s your favorite Bible hero? . . . and you can’t say Jesus.

Laura Booz: Moses. In my mind’s eye, he’s standing there with his big shepherd’s crook, and he’s wearing a cape! That’s how heroic I think Moses was.

Erin: He was heroic, for sure.

I’m sure if you’re listening, you have your own list of heroes springing to mind. But I am about to tell you about someone I think should be high on your list.

Laura: Welcome to The Deep Well with Erin Davis. I’m Laura Booz, your cohost for this season, which is all about eclipses. We’ve been flipping pages of our Bibles with Erin, finding stories where it looked like the darkness was going to overshadow the light. This series will give you hope when all you seem to see is darkness.

Here’s Erin.

Erin: When we list the heroes of the Bible, I think we’re missing someone. I am all for putting Moses and Peter and Paul and Ruth on those lists, but I’d like to start a petition to add a name: Stephen. We find his story in the book of Acts, chapters six and seven.

We’ve been moving through our Bibles looking for eclipses. They’re not necessarily lunar or solar eclipses, but I want you to apply what you know about astrological eclipses and use it as a grid to try and better understand some of the passages we see in Scripture.

In this series, we’re thinking about eclipses like, what happens when something comes between us and the Son, Jesus? Or times when it looked like the spiritual darkness that’s caused by sin was going to overwhelm the light of the world.

Just like in the sky, where eclipses happen with some regularity, we started in Genesis 3. We’ve moved through 2 Kings to the Gospels. And here in Acts the birth of the early church, and eclipses keep happening, those times when sin, the armies of darkness, try to cover up the light.

If you haven’t already, open your Bible to Acts chapter 6. It’s always good to get the lay of the land. The Church here was just a baby, and like a baby, the Church was growing fast. Some issues had come up in that early Church, so the twelve disciples decided to delegate. They looked for a group of men to shoulder the load of ministry, and those men had to meet some really specific qualifications. Stephen was the first name on the list of the names the disciples chose. Looking at the qualifications the disciples gave tells us a lot about his character. Let’s just fly over Acts 6:1–7.

Verse 3 tells us that the disciples were looking for a man of “good repute, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom.” So, who did they choose? Verse 5 tells us they chose Stephen, and we learn more about him in this verse. It says, “And what they said pleased the whole gathering. And they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit.”

By any standard, Stephen was a good man. He had a good reputation. He was wise. He was full of faith. He walked by the Spirit. And Stephen was the kind of light that the powers of darkness love to snuff out. 

Watch what happens in Acts chapter 6:8–10.

And Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people. Then some of those who belonged to the synagogues of the freedmen, as it was called, and of the Cyrenians and of the Alexandrians, and those from Silica and Asia, rose up and disputed with Stephen. But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking.

When we come to an interaction like this, where the names feel strange, I want you to learn to resist the urge to skim and instead train yourself to sit. This was the beginning of a growing and serious rift between the devout groups that are listed here and Christians. 

You have to remember that Jews had lived for centuries under the Old Testament, and they didn’t deny the problem of sin or their need for God, they just assumed that salvation came through works, by keeping the law.

I am a firstborn, type double-A achiever. So I can always understand the appeal of the false sense that salvation is something I can manage by sticking to some list, even if it’s a really long list like the Law. But Christ’s death ushered in the new covenant.

The other day, one of my kids was fussy and frustrated, and I said, “What is going on, Bud?”

He said, “I don’t like change!”

Can’t we all relate to that? In some ways, it gives us some sort of connection to the men who were so frustrated with Stephen. They’d only known things one way, and Jesus came and changed everything. Now there was a new covenant, which was salvation that came by grace through faith.

I found myself in a Starbucks once with a rabbi, and we were talking about all kinds of things related to God and faith. I used the words “old covenant” and “new covenant,” and he very sweetly said, “Those are not words we like to say.” He would have been in the camp with these men who were so frustrated with Stephen, because in his mind there was only one covenant, and he didn’t like change.

The men in this passage represent a much larger group who could not reconcile the old covenant with the new because that meant that their Jewishness, which was their very identity, wasn’t enough to make them right with God. Their hearts were eclipsed by the sin of their unbelief, and that had led to a cultural eclipse resulting in Jesus’s execution.

But it’s good to know who the real enemy is here. Scripture describes “cosmic powers over this present darkness” and “spiritual forces of evil,” and they’re led by the enemy of our souls, Satan. Scripture calls him the “god of this world.” What we need to know is that there is a dark army, and Satan is the general of that army.

Stephen’s story makes one thing really clear: that dark army hates the light of Christ. It’s not mildly annoyed by it, not passively aggressive toward it, but actively fighting to take out Jesus’ light.

Scripture also tells us that Satan, the general of that dark army, blinds the minds of those who don’t know Christ; that his goal in the world is to keep God’s children in the dark, to keep us from seeing the light of the gospel and the glory of Jesus. We see this displayed really overtly in the life of Stephen. We get a glimpse into the battle that happens in the heavenly realm. These religious leaders were blinded to the deity of Christ, and as a result, they could not stand the light of Christ that lived inside of Stephen.

I want to pick it up in Acts 6:11–15.

Then they secretly instigated men who said, "We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God." And they stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes. And they came upon him and seized him and brought him before the council. And they set up false witnesses who said, "This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us." 

All kinds of sacred cows mooing in these speeches! “He talks against Moses, our hero, our sacred places!” As I read this interaction, I always want to side with Stephen, but I try to see it from multiple perspectives. I’m reminded that one of my emotions that I am least fond of is defensiveness. I feel it rising up in me so often, and it is never good, and it’s never gracious.

Where defensiveness rises up most strongly in me is when somebody questions something that I see as core to my identity. If I feel like my husband, Jason, doesn’t think I’m being a good—he’s so kind and he always thinks I’m being a good wife—but if I feel criticized by him or like I’m not meeting his expectations . . . defensiveness is usually the first emotion on that scene, because being Jason’s wife is so important to me.

I can be the same way with my kids. If someone questions my parenting (or more likely, I feel like they’re questioning my parenting), defensiveness is what rises up in me, because being the mom of Eli, Noble, Judah, and Ezra is one of my highest priorities.

That’s what we see here. These men were so angry, they were seeing red! Scripture is going to tell us in a moment that they were gnashing their teeth, that’s how angry they were. They were foaming at the mouth. What emotion is that? It’s defensiveness. They set up this showdown, because they were going to prove that they were right and Stephen was wrong. Bigger than that, they were trying to squash all that Jesus came to say and do. Their intent was to prove that Jesus was wrong and they were right. They wanted to prove that they were right about God, about salvation, and mostly about them.

Like we always do when we feel defensive:

  • They were working really hard to get other people on their side, to rally troops.
  • They were exaggerating what had really happened.
  • They were trying to get people to see things their way, even if what they were saying wasn’t true.
  • They rallied false witnesses who were making things up.

What they were doing was causing a feeding frenzy.

Verse 15 sounds strange compared to all of that that happened in the verses preceding. Verse 15 says, “And gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel.”

Next to verse 15 in my Bible I wrote a bunch of question marks, because I don’t know exactly what that looked like. What does it mean that Stephen’s face was like the face of an angel? I don’t know exactly, but somehow, the light of Christ was visible on the face of Stephen. The result was, again, it just further enraged those whose hearts were darkened to the truth of the gospel.

Now, in chapter 7 of the book of Acts, Stephen gives this remarkable speech in the face of these opponents. I could spend a whole podcast season just on Stephen’s speech; maybe I will someday. But my encouragement for you today is to read it. I think it’s one of the greatest sermons in the whole Bible.

We know it was Holy Spirit-inspired because Scripture tells us that Stephen was full of the Holy Spirit, that he walked by the Holy Spirit, and only the Holy Spirit could say something as powerful as Stephen did in this sermon.

I want you to listen to Acts 7:51–53. This is the mic drop.

You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears! You always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it. 

Then Stephen gave an altar call, and all the devout Jews who had questioned him came forward and gave their lives to Jesus! Right? No. That’s not what happened, because the darkness hates the light.

Now when they heard these things, they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him. (Acts 7:54)

Stephen had done what Ephesians 5:11 tells all followers of Christ to do: “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.” And darkness never wants to be exposed. These men didn’t want their dark and sinful hearts exposed. Like camera film—remember camera film? When it’s exposed to the light, it changes, and that’s exactly what Jesus does.

Listen to what happened next in verse 55.

But he [Stephen], full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 

Scripture keeps telling us that Stephen was full of the Holy Spirit. This was God working in him; this was God working through him. It was by the power of the Holy Spirit that Stephen was emboldened enough to stand his ground in the face of these very angry, very powerful people.It wasn’t just that Stephen was a good man; in fact, his accusers would probably have been “good” men. But it wasn’t enough to save them, and that was enraging.

So Stephen turned his face toward the light. He looked toward heaven, and he saw God’s glory! He saw the risen Savior, and I think it’s worth noting Jesus’s posture in this verse. Other places that describe Jesus at the Father’s right hand always say He’s seated on the throne, but here, as He’s looking down on what’s happening to Stephen and Stephen’s looking up at his Savior, Jesus is standing. He’s attentive. He’s welcoming. I have to wonder if He was offering Stephen a standing ovation as Stephen fought back against the forces of darkness.

If you don’t know the story, I have to give away the ending. Stephen is about to be martyred. There’s a pattern that I’ve noticed through the years as I’ve read stories of other Christian martyrs. I was reading one just the other day; it was in a secular news outlet. They weren’t trying to tie what happened to this martyr in 2021 to what happened to Stephen in the book of Acts, but they said when that martyr was about to be killed by radical Muslims he looked up to the sky and said, “Jesus!”

I’ve read that in multiple places, that as Christians are about to be executed for their faith, they often look into the sky and say the name of their Savior. I don’t know this for sure, but I think there’s evidence to believe that as a Christian martyr is laying down his or her life that Jesus is with them in some unique way, giving them the fortitude to surrender their lives and step into glory.

Stephen’s vision of Jesus, as He’s looking up and seeing His risen Savior standing in the throne room, well, that only enraged Stephen’s accusers more. Verse 57:

But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped up their ears and rushed together at him.

Sin makes us all act like two-year-olds. Verses 58-60:

Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!" And falling on his knees, he cried out with a loud voice, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them!’ And when he had said this, he fell asleep."

I’m not arguing with Scripture, but he didn’t take a nap. He died, right there, a terrible, painful death at the hands of an angry mob.

Let’s circle back to a couple of things in this scene. In verse 59 Stephen said, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit,” and he was following the example of Jesus on the cross. In verse 60 it tells us that he fell to his knees and cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” He was quoting Jesus, who said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” as He died on the cross.

How did Stephen push back against the darkness? The same way we do. He looked to Jesus. He knew what Jesus said, he believed what Jesus said, and he clung to what Jesus said.

Stephen is not just some Bible character; Stephen is our brother in Christ. He’s been adopted into the same family that we are. Stephen became the first follower of Jesus to die for his faith, but he would not be the last.

I want you to put your hand under your chin right now, because I’m about to say some numbers that should shock you, and your mouth might fly right open. According to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity, in the 2010s (just one decade ago), 800,000 Christians were killed for their faith. The decade prior, in the 2000s, 1.6 million Christians martyred for following Jesus. Open Doors reports a little more recent number, that in 2019, 4,305 Christians were killed for following Jesus. That’s more people than the population of my entire town.

I read about the stoning of Stephen, and it does feel like an eclipse. Here was a man full of the Holy Spirit; we would call him on fire for Jesus, and he was. He was wise. He was a man of great faith. He was full of grace and power. He was doing amazing things for the kingdom of God, and he was stoned to death at the hands of an angry mob. It sure feels like the light of his life was snuffed out by darkness. 

Our Christian brothers and sisters who are being killed at a pace of one million per decade in the modern world, it sure feels like the armies of darkness have bested the armies of heaven. But here’s what Stephen’s story shows us: that the sign that the light is winning is not the comfort of the saints, it’s the growth of the kingdom of God.

Anytime I hear stories about followers of Jesus under persecution—and I mean anytime I hear stories about the followers of Jesus under persecution—I hear that when they are asked how to pray for them, they always say some version of, “Don’t ask for the persecution to stop; pray that we would stand firm and that the gospel would go forth.” That’s the heart we see in Stephen. That’s the revolution that Stephen began, followers of Jesus willing to endure the pressure so that the gospel would go forward.

On the day that we’re recording this episode, the Armed Forces of the United States have just pulled out of Afghanistan, and the Taliban has taken over control of that country. We keep hearing stories of our Christian brothers and sisters enduring persecution under that regime. Some have fled, but some have stayed to serve the underground church and win the lost.

Just this morning, I was reading the testimony of one Afghan Christian. I don’t know who they are, if it’s a man or a woman or how old they are. I know almost nothing about them, except that they are a part of my family, and this is what they said, describing what’s happening on the ground right now.

The despair is very visible, but today I went to walk around, sing songs, and visit my friends. When people saw me, they were so happy. It gives them hope. God will do great things through the believers that stayed.

This is a principle that Jesus taught us in John 12:24, where He said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” The life of Stephen has borne much fruit for the Kingdom. The life of everyone willing to lay their lives down for Jesus will bear fruit for the Kingdom.

The death of the saints is not evidence that the darkness is winning. It might be what God uses to shine His light into the minds of those who don’t believe in him. Did Stephen’s death stop the gospel from going forth? Well, you’ll have to read the book of Acts to find out, but I can tell you, this was not an eclipse. God used it to push back the armies of darkness.

I want to wrap up this episode by praying for our persecuted brothers and sisters around the world, and if that’s you and you’re listening, I want you to hear that we stand with you.

Jesus, we love You. You’re the King of kings and the Lord of lords. Right now you’re still where you were as Stephen was being killed, right at the right hand of the Father. Lord, Your eyes go to and fro, looking for Your children, and I pray for my brothers and sisters who know You and are following You in dark places, where they face persecution and even death. I’m going to honor their requests and not pray that that persecution stops, but pray that You would embolden them, strengthen them, and that Your gospel would go forth through them. It’s in Your name I pray, amen.

Laura: Do you realize your story will last for eternity? That means when your story takes a dark turn, there’s still a whole lot left to come. That should affect how we live day by day, even if we were called to lay down our lives.

Erin will be right back. If you appreciate the way she unpacks a Bible passage and makes it come alive in your imagination, I hope you’ll go through a Bible study she wrote called Seven Feasts: Finding Christ in the Sacred Celebrations of the Old Testament. Erin will take you to the book of Leviticus and some of the feasts of the Old Testament will come alive for you and help you appreciate Jesus even more.

To get Seven Feasts, visit ReviveOurHearts.com/TheDeepWell.

Erin, you’re on the hot seat! It’s time for Erin Unscripted.

Erin: Can’t wait!

Erin Unscripted

Laura: Well, you’ve convinced me, Erin, Stephen truly is a hero. Where do you think He is today?

Erin: Well, I don’t think we have to guess. Let me read from Revelation 6:9.

When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the Word of God and for the witness they had borne. [That certainly represents Stephen.] They cried out with a loud voice, "O sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before You will judge and avenge our blood on those that dwell on the earth?"

So he’s with Jesus, and just like he did in life, he’s crying out for Jesus to have His way on the earth.

Laura: I was reading along with you, Erin, and I noticed verse 11 says, “Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.”

First of all, it reminds me of the previous episode, in which we really dug deep into the waiting that we must do as Christians, but waiting as a guaranteed promise of Jesus’ return.

I remember when my pastor preached through the book of Revelation just recently. He pointed out this verse and said, “When we wonder, When will Jesus return? we look at this verse and know that He will return the moment the last martyr has been killed, and no longer.”

I don’t have a way of neatly packing up my comments just there, but I feel like it’s something to hold on to. I feel like it’s something to take before the Lord and hold as part of our faith in Him. He says, “Just rest a little longer,” knowing that it’s part of His plan. I mean, those numbers that you shared in this episode of Christians who have been martyred just recently, just yesterday, just today.

First of all, it moves my heart to prayer, just as it moved yours. Secondly, it gives me great hope, to know that this is not something happening outside of God’s plan or outside of His watchful eye; this is part of the story, an important part.

Erin: Yes, and it’s not wasted. I mean, who knows that our brother or sister martyred today or martyred tomorrow is not the turning point? So, none of it is wasted; the Lord’s using it all.

Laura: Have you ever been persecuted for your faith?

Erin: You can’t see me, but I made a funny face when you asked that question. Here’s the tension I feel: as an American, middle-class Christian, I know that persecution is a spectrum. I think about those who are followers of Jesus in other parts of the world where it’s illegal to own a Bible, where gathering with other Christians is a punishable offense, and I think, Oh, that’s persecution. I haven’t ever experienced anything like that. 

But I also really wrestle with a place in Scripture where Jesus told us that all who follow Him will be persecuted, that in some ways it’s an evidence that we’re followers of Jesus. Jesus didn’t give a spectrum there. He wasn’t saying, “This counts as persecution; this doesn’t count as persecution.” So, has following Jesus been costly to me? Has it ever been opposed or resisted? Yes. I can think of several situations off the top of my head where someone was enraged by my faith, annoyed by my faith, and everywhere in between. Again, with the caveat that many who love Jesus are facing really horrific persecution, and I don’t put myself in their company, because they are such champions. It has been costly.

Laura: It’s interesting; I am thinking about our American fear of persecution regarding our faith, and fear of the lightest scratch, fear of pushback in a conversation, right? It would be against the law for someone to literally harm us because of our faith, but just fear of anger or somebody’s bad impression of us.

Erin: Yes. I think we think of persecution as a social media comment that’s a little terse. I think that’s kind of our context for it.

Laura: Yes. It kind of reminds me of how my kids—my little ones, especially—are scared to go outside because there’s a fly. “There’s a fly out there!” They freak out, and they come in, and they refuse to go out to play. Yet they will be standing on some ledge somewhere, a major danger, and they’re all in. They’re whole-hearted on this high ledge of danger. I’m like, “Whoa, that is really dangerous!”

I think maybe in our modern world I see a little bit of that illogical fear in us of persecution.

Erin: That’s always true, isn’t it? There’s no grace for the fear of something. There’s grace for when we actually face it. But I think the other piece that we miss, from where I sit—again, as an American Christian who’s only ever known that context for my faith—is that the places in the world where Christianity is growing most rapidly, where Christians are experiencing some of the most dramatic life change, where signs and miracles are still happening, where walking by the Spirit looks very different than somebody who doesn’t know Jesus; those are the places in the world where persecution is the most legal, the most normalized. What is it that we should really be afraid of? Is it the persecution, or is it the spiritual sleepiness that comes from living in a culture where there is no persecution?

Laura: Yes, that is a good point. The point isn’t, “How far deep into persecution can I get?” But instead, be awake, be alert, walk with the Lord on the ground where He has put your feet, living faithfully in that space and following Him.

I did want to read from Matthew 5, when Jesus speaks to all Christians who are persecuted, whether it is light or something very profound and heavy. He says,

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (vv. 10–12)

Erin: Yes, don’t we see that countenance in Stephen? He was a joyful martyr, it seems.

Laura: I think you’re right. I was just going to say that; I wonder if that was on his mind.

One of the passages of Scripture that kept rolling through my mind as I was listening to you, Erin, was Romans 12. A couple of those verses say, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” (v. 1)

I thought about that when it comes to martyrdom, that not all of us will be killed for our faith, but all of us are called to live for our faith. So I’m wondering if you would just speak into that. What does that look like, if we’re living as sacrifices to God?

Erin: Well, we do all have to die for our faith. We don’t all have to physically die, but Christ’s call on our life is that we die to self and we live for Him. I think there are some things that are consistent in all of our lives, but what the Lord uses to cause me to die to self and what the Lord uses to cause you to die to self are probably very different.

But we keep submitting ourselves to whatever that is that the Lord puts into our life to kill us living for our own agenda, to kill us being motivated by our own selfishness, to kill sin in us—not to minimize the Christians who actually lay down their lives, but there is death associated with living for Christ, and it is the death of self.

Laura: I was thinking about Stephen and how he would answer this question from his own life. “Yes, it didn’t just start the moment they started throwing stones at me.” Back up many steps, and what was he doing? He was serving tables. His death to self started before then, presumably, but that the Lord would call him to lay down his life and serve tables for the saints.

Erin: Yes. Great connection. I think he’d probably been preparing for the moment when he was killed for a long time, because Scripture describes him in ways that sound like a mature man of God, a man of faith and wisdom who walked in the Spirit. You’re right, he was willing to serve the body, and knew what he believed and could back it up when confronted. Those things don’t come to us at the moment we face death by an angry mob; those things had been worked out in daily life, in his daily walk with Jesus.

Laura: Have you ever heard the Heidelberg Catechism?

Erin: I have not.

Laura: There’s this question that kicks it off. It is, “What is your only comfort in life and death?” The answer is, “That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with His precious blood and has set me free from all the power of the devil. He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from head. Indeed, all things must work together for my salvation. Therefore, by His Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to life for Him.”

What do you think of that?

Erin: It’s beautiful, and it’s true. I love some of those old writings. I don’t know that we think like that; we certainly don’t write like that anymore. But that is our only hope, that in life, in death, we belong to Jesus.

Laura: On the next episode we’ll look forward to a time when eclipses will come to an end! I hope you’ll go ahead and queue up the next episode of The Deep Well.

The Deep Well with Erin Davis is a production of Revive Our Hearts, calling women to freedom, fullness, and fruitfulness in Christ.

All Scripture is taken from the ESV.

*Offers available only during the broadcast of the podcast season.

About the Teacher

Erin Davis

Erin Davis

Erin Davis is an author, blogger, and speaker who loves to see women of all ages run to the deep well of God’s Word. She is the author of many books and Bible studies including: 7 Feasts, Connected, Beautiful Encounters, and the My Name Is Erin series. She serves on the ministry team of Revive Our Hearts. When she’s not writing, you can find Erin chasing chickens and children on her small farm in the Midwest.

About the Host

Laura Booz

Laura Booz

Laura Booz is the author of Expect Something Beautiful: Finding God's Good Gifts in Motherhood and the host of the Expect Something Beautiful podcast with Revive Our Hearts. She'll cheer you on, share practical ideas, and point out the beautiful ways God is working in your life. She lives in Pennsylvania with her husband, Ryan, and their six children. Meet her at LauraBooz.com.