Today's devotional is not a movie review, but a testimony to the ability of God to deliver superhuman strength to His faithful followers, even as they face death.
I have stood upon the hill where Stephen, the first martyr, was stoned to death. His voice was heard clearly by those who took his life, the two final phrases of this man of God were preserved for our consideration. Luke reports that, while they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” He had already seen the heavens opened, the glorious throne of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. I find it significant that the Lord has chosen to stand at this moment, as if in a final ovation to this act of faith.
As the stones being hurled upon him did their inevitable work, Stephen's flesh and his physical heart began to fail him. But before they did, he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Those were the last words Stephen ever spoke. Even as he was being murdered by a frenzied mob, he prayed for their forgiveness. This, then, is a prime example of GOD being the strength of Stephen's heart, and his portion forever.
But Stephen's story is not unique, not by any means. Luke tells us that on that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem. Foxe's Book of Martyrs reports "about two thousand Christians, with Nicanor, one of the seven deacons, suffered martyrdom during the 'persecution that arose about Stephen.' "
Some time later, in 44 AD, James the Apostle (son of Zebedee and elder brother the Apostle John) was falsely accused under a plan devised by King Herod. (This was Herod Agrippa, a son of the man who was king at the time of Jesus's birth.) The writings of Titus Flavius Clemens, a Christian theologian and philosopher who taught at the Catechetical School of Alexandria, preserve a first-hand report from the day James' life was taken. Clemens tells us that, as James was led to the place of martyrdom, his accuser repented publicly of his false accusations. Pushing through the crowd, the man fell on his knees before James and begged him for forgiveness. After James forgave his accuser, the man professed that he had become a Christian. At Herod's order, they were both beheaded with swords at the same time. Flesh failing, but hearts brave and strong; because for those who love Him, God is the strength of their heart and their portion forever.
I could, quite literally go on and on and on and on. Whether it's the classic "Foxe's Book of Martyrs" or the contemporary volumes entitled "Jesus Freaks: Stories of Those Who Stood for Jesus;" there are a hundred or more compilations of tales of Christian martyrdom. Some, like "Hearts of Fire: Eight Women in the Underground Church and Their Stories of Costly Faith" focus on a single nation. Others, such as "Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy" tell the story of a single person. All recount flesh failing, but hearts brave and strong.
This is a faith worth having. This is a faith worth living (and dying) for.
What about you? Do you have a faith that is a central focus of your life? Does it impact your decisions? If your faith hasn't changed your life, it's probably time to change your faith. It's time to put your faith in someone worth living for.
My prayer is that I may be a strong witness, that I would exhibit a brave heart when facing assaults against my faith.
May I be able to say with a loud voice, "MY FLESH AND MY HEART MAY FAIL -- BUT GOD IS THE STRENGTH OF MY HEART AND MY PORTION …. FOREVER !!!"