Acts 6:15 – All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel. (NIV)
Acts 7:55-58 – But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God. "Look", he said, "I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God." At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul. (NIV)
To encourage understanding and appreciation for the roots of the Christian faith, I once led a Bible study using a curriculum entitled "The Trial and Testimony of the Early Church", prepared by the Christian History Institute. This course was one of the most memorable experiences in all the years of my Bible study ministry. Scripture passages came to life as our group imagined Christian worshippers in first century Palestine. Personally, I was inspired by the courage of the early church, yet surprised at some of the imperfections we tend to overlook when romanticizing early saints. Though they were imperfect, the Holy Spirit's power enabled them to hold firm to their faith in spite of persecution and death.
Stephen, the first to be martyred for his faith in Jesus the Messiah, is described shortly before his execution as having a face like an angel. His appearance reflected the presence of God shining brightly through him, and with God's grace, Stephen witnessed a vision of his Saviour that encouraged him to the end. I have read similar stories of Christians throughout the centuries who experienced God's miraculous power, making it possible for them to face death with faithfulness instead of fear. Even in today's times, statistics report that there are more martyrs now than any other time in church history. Many ministries, such as Voice of the Martyrs, are raising awareness and support for the plight of believers who suffer injustice in hostile countries around the world. Yet, despite persecution, many are being converted to Christ.
Thanks to careful documentation of early church writers, I have been deeply blessed by the study "The Trial and Testimony of the Early Church". Tertullian, an early church father wrote, "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church." The Bible speaks to believers regardless of the age in which we live, warning us to expect some form of persecution. Jesus said, "If they persecuted Me, they will persecute you also." (John 15:20 NIV) But like Stephen, we too, with the Spirit's power, can shine with the face of an angel through any adversity, overcoming the world and receiving the crown of life.
Prayer: Lord, we thank You for the powerful testimony of early believers who have sacrificed their lives for the sake of Your name. On this International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church, help those facing persecution with the same faith, strength, and courage only Your Spirit can provide. In Jesus' holy name, we pray. Amen.