If you’ve ever questioned whether sharing of your faith with others makes a difference, this post is for you. You’re about to meet two heroes who will greatly encourage you, one from a generation ago and another from Biblical times.
I was 40 years old before I ever studied the Bible. My neighbor invited me to BSF (Bible Study Fellowship), an international, interdenominational study. I was forever changed by it; I saw the words in the Bible come to life for me and others through that study. In fact, I can hardly wait to rejoin BSF for this year’s study of Revelation.
I was deeply moved by the story of BSF’s founder, Audrey Wetherell Johnson. (I recount it here as I recall it, and apologize in advance for any errors.) Ms. Johnson knew God’s call on her life was to bring the Bible to China. After ministering there and seeing her colleagues and friends persecuted as a result of her presence, she returned home to California physically weakened and emotionally defeated. It was a group of “real housewife” types who shook her out of her doldrums, albeit a bit begrudgingly.
They heard that she had been a missionary and implored her to teach them the Bible. I have to believe this was not what Ms. Johnson felt God had called her to do, and I am quite certain this mission felt far less noble. Who would want to lead a cackle of spoiled American women after being part of bringing light to one of the darkest places in the world? But Ms. Johnson was obedient in this call too and began to lead women’s Bible studies.
When I joined BSF in the mid-2000s we heard Ms. Johnson’s story because, 40 years after she began this ministry, BSF classes were being opened for the first time in mainland China. They were only for expatriates, and they were government-supervised, but they were there nonetheless. A couple years later we heard that the Chinese government, traditionally antagonistic to Christianity, had softened its position, embracing the notion that good Christians make good citizens. And following the success of the ex-pat pilots the government opened the first BSF classes to Chinese nationals. Long after Ms. Johnson answered God’s call He was faithful to fulfill her mission, and posthumously the program she began as a consolation to her call fulfilled it.
I had an epiphany this morning listening to a sermon by Ravi Zacharias Ministries about the disciple Stephen. It had never occurred to me before that Stephen was the spark that ignited Paul’s spiritual fire before he ever got knocked off his horse. In Acts 6 we are introduced to Stephen as a powerful presence for the Lord.
They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit…(Acts 6:5)
Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, performed great wonders and signs among the people. (Acts 6:8)”
Acts Chapter 7:51-60 provides an account of Stephen’s famous martyrdom. After recounting the Messianic message of the Old Testament, revealing to skeptics in the Sanhedrin how the law and prophets foretold the coming of Jesus, Stephen convicts them with the following bold truth:
“You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him— you who have received the law that was given through angels but have not obeyed it.”
Not surprisingly his message was not well received. I love that the scripture reports “they gnashed their teeth” and “covered their ears.” (Sounds like something straight out of ‘Where the Wild Things Are”!) While it seems somewhat comical in reality it certainly was not; these leaders were completely undone by Stephen’s bold embrace of truth. Here is a young many whom previous verses make clear is virtually radiating with the fullness of the Spirit, and yet the intellectuals of his time are reduced to toddler-like tantrums in their efforts to rebuke, discredit and destroy him. The passage continues:
When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand 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 coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep.
It’s safe to assume Saul didn’t end up there by accident. A known persecutor of Christians he certainly was a leader or instigator of the attack on Stephen. In his mind he was a bold defender of the faith against followers of The Way, a group that was leading many astray from the teachings of Moses and the prophets.
He had heard the story of Jesus and rejected it, which blinded him to the truth…a blindness that would become quite literal very shortly. And then he is confronted by Stephen, a compelling young man willing to die for the truth he believed in, and imbued with the grace to pray for and forgive those who were in the act of stoning him.
I have to imagine this scene began to peel the scales off of Saul’s spiritual vision:
- Was he similarly willing to die for what he believed?
- What was his heart for his enemies, was it filled with love or something darker?
- Was he demonstrating the relentless pursuit of God’s people that the Lord himself had modeled, or had he gotten off track somewhere, wandering lost in his own desert?
No doubt these questions were swirling in Saul’s mind, reinforced by the images of the innocent Stephen dying, his face illuminated by his vision of the Lord. Perhaps that distracted driving is what caused Paul to initially lose his balance and fall off his horse, which led to his own close encounter with God and an undeniable confrontation with the truth.
Stephen was not there to see his faithfulness break the stone heart of the man God would use to write more than half of the New Testament, the “Good News” that has brought generations of people into relationship with Jesus Christ.
When you doubt that your small acts of kindness, forgiveness and love make a difference in a world full of darkness, recall the examples of Ms. Johnson and Stephen who:
- Listened for God’s call on their lives.
- Were faithful to obey, even in the face of opposition and discouragement.
- Died with no confirmation that their ministry had made any difference.
- Strived to earn this final reward:
- Well done, my good servant! Luke 19:17
Seek inspiration from these verses to seek to serve others and to do so faithfully without expecting reward here for your efforts.
- Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. (1Peter 4:10)
- Let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. (Matthew 5:16)
- For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.(Ephesians 2:10)
- Store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. (John 10:10)
- As for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:14-17)