As Candy and I have been contemplating a new direction, and face a not so easy decision, we’ve weighed out human factors like finances, education, and family and have finally arrived at this one remaining question, the most important question: “Lord, what should we do?”.
Our family has been trying to maintain a morning devotion time in which we’ll read a portion of scripture and talk a bit about it, then pray as a family. We’re not bang on every day with this, but we do try to keep it a priority and it has been a blessing as the Lord has opened up His Word to us and we’ve had some meaningful times together. It’s an effort, but we find that when we start our days this way, our interactions together throughout the day are peppered with grace and we feel a greater sense of purpose.
Along the course of our readings we’ve been going through the book of Acts and have just read the account of the life and martyrdom of Stephen in Acts 6 and 7 as well as the story of Philip in Samaria in Acts 8. We’ve seen a common thread through these two narratives that illustrates the importance of following God, (being led by the Spirit) over giving way to conventional human wisdom; of letting God in His wisdom direct us in the paths we take in life and trusting Him even though we don’t have all the answers at the outset.
First we have Stephen. Luke tells us in Acts 6 that Stephen was a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit and that no one could resist the wisdom and the Spirit by which he spoke. He was a powerful force for the kingdom of God. Bold. In Acts 7, Stephen is confronted by the Jewish leaders regarding his preaching and in response gives a long monologue taking them back in time, and following their unfaithfulness through history to the present day, concluding that they are stiff necked and always resisting the Holy Spirit, persecuting the prophets and ultimately murdering the Messiah, Jesus Christ. He finally accuses them of not keeping the law of God and then full of the Spirit, Stephen looks up to heaven and sees Jesus, sitting at God’s right hand. As he describes this awesome sight, the Jews plug their ears and as one man they rush him, drag him out of the city and stone him to death. While he is dying, he cries out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” There is a man present there, Saul of Tarsus, at whose feet the witnesses of this awful event lay their garments. Saul the Pharisee. This Saul approves of Stephen’s execution and that very day a great persecution arises against the church in Jerusalem, scattering Christians into the surrounding regions. This persecution sees Saul the Pharisee entering house after house and dragging men and women off to prison.
So I see here, through the lens of human wisdom, something that doesn’t quite make sense. Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, essentially throws his life away. When I read that no one could resist the wisdom and the Spirit by which he spoke, I thought here was a man who could accomplish much in ministry. If he had just played his cards right, kept his mouth shut and accepted their abuse, he could have been released, and then have continued to spread the gospel message, winning more souls and having a broader impact. Contrary to that though, he opens his mouth in witness against the authorities, seals his fate, and in a few short minutes is dead. Silenced. Right?
It doesn’t compute, and surely had Stephen paused for thought long enough he might have arrived at the same conclusion, but he doesn’t pause for thought, does he? No, instead he follows the Spirit of the Living God right off a cliff. Did Stephen have a family? People who loved him? Friends who would miss him? Maybe. Probably. So why? Honestly, Stephen did not know why. But that didn’t matter to Stephen. All that mattered to him in that moment was that he follow God. Trust and obey. There, when the threat was greatest, he did not regard his life as precious, and he died because of it. What a waste of a great force for the Kingdom. Or was it? See, what Stephen couldn’t have known, and what makes his decision to be led by the Spirit that much more poignant to me, was that his decision would precipitate the greatest persecution the church had known to date, and that this persecution would send the gospel into all the surrounding regions, just as Jesus promised in Acts 1:8. It would result in the conversion of Saul the pharisee, who would become Paul the believer from whom we have much of our New Testament and through whom the gospel message would spread like wildfire far and wide. But what about Stephen? He went to be with Jesus. He’s with Him now. No regrets. Stephen couldn’t know the events his death would precipitate and I don’t think he cared. But God knew. And Stephen trusted Him. Have you ever been impacted by anything that Paul wrote? When you get to heaven, remember to thank Stephen for not consulting human wisdom when push came to shove.
Next we have a man named Philip. During this great persecution, Philip was one of the scattered believers who ended up in Samaria. Luke goes on to tell us in Acts 8 that Philip proclaimed to them the Christ - he told them about Jesus - and crowds of people paid attention. They saw him do mighty signs and wonders, casting out demons, healing the lame and the paralyzed, and they believed and were baptized. The bible says there was much joy in that city. Philip was in the midst of a powerful move of God. People were coming to Christ by the droves and being baptized, healed, set free. Philip was at the centre of it all. Then an angel of the Lord tells Philip to get up and go south into a desert place. Just like that, in the middle of all this outpouring, healing, revival - Philip is prescribed a desert wilderness. Again, human wisdom would beg Philip to ask, “What!? Why Lord? I need to stay and fan this flame You’ve ignited. These people need me. I can teach them all that You’ve shown me. I can disciple them and help them to grow in their walk with You”. But it doesn’t appear Philip asked these questions. He just got up and went. Trust and obey. Fast forward a bit and Philip meets someone along that desert road to Gaza. The man he meets is an Ethiopian eunuch, an official of the royal court of Queen Candace of Ethiopia. So trusted an official is he that he is in charge of all of the Queen’s treasure. Philip preaches the gospel to this powerful and influential man, who then believes and is baptized on the spot. A new believer in Jesus - now headed back to Ethiopia where he will no doubt start a fire there in the royal court - introducing Africa to Jesus!
In light of these two powerful examples, how important is it that we be led by the Spirit of God? The Spirit will always lead us into the plans and purposes of God, but will so often not seem to make sense to the natural man. Remember, in both these men’s circumstances we the readers have the advantage of knowing the end of the story, but neither Philip nor Steven had that advantage. They trusted God and didn’t hold on tightly to their their status, reputation, or even their lives. We sometimes balk at the seeming outrageous things the Lord leads us to say or do because we can’t make sense of it in our minds. Earthly wisdom would dictate to us that we see the end of the story, and that that end be favourable to us personally before we make our decisions here on earth, but the wisdom of God doesn’t look like that. God has all ends in hand, and that apparently is all we who follow Him need to know. The path of wisdom, the path to God’s end, may include personal loss for us, even great persecution and death, as indeed it did for all of the apostles and countless others throughout history and in our own time. But should this possibility change our decision to follow Him? We might be tempted to turn away sad, like the rich young ruler in Mark 10, but we need to remember that following Jesus is impossible with man! But while we remember that, remember also that all things are possible to them that believe. It is only at the point of believing that the supernatural will take place. Factor on the power and the enabling of the Holy Spirit when once you choose to follow, but never before.