For Sihanoukville, Cambodia, prison ministry – May 5, 2012
I want to share with you today the story of Stephen.
Stephen was one of Jesus’ disciples. The Bible doesn’t say much about Stephen other than he was young, he was full of God’s grace, he did great wonders and miraculous signs among people, and he had the face of an angel. By that last description, many believe Stephen was a handsome man.
He is mentioned in only two chapters of the Bible, both in the book of Acts, but his commitment to Jesus was so significant that it made him a hero – the first martyr, or follower who gave his life in the name of Jesus Christ.
In Acts, we find Stephen being persecuted by the Jews. The high priests didn’t take a liking to the “miraculous signs and great wonders” Stephen was performing. Out of envy and fear, they arrested him and took him to the authorities.
Sitting in front of the authorities, Stephen didn’t just cower down. He took the opportunity to preach the Gospel. And he didn’t just preach the Gospel, he went into one of the most captivating and convicting testimonies ever to grace the pages of the Good Book. I dare say, his witness of Christ is unmatchable.
He showed no fear. He told the authorities about God and about Moses, and then he accused them of murdering Jesus! His boldness made the authorities furious! They were so enraged they ordered Stephen to be stoned to death.
Not even a good stoning scared Stephen, though. Do you know what he did as he was being stoned? He prayed!
Stephen prayed in Acts 7:59-60, “’Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ Then he fell on his knees and cried out, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them (NIV).’”
We don’t always understand why we are placed in difficult circumstances. Sometimes God allows us to be there. Sometimes we make choices that result in us being there. No matter how we get there – and we will get there – if we somehow can muster up the strength to give God the glory, He will always work good in our lives.
The Bible doesn’t say exactly how the authorities were affected by Stephen’s prayer that day, but it does say that Saul was there, watching everything. On that day, Saul began a great persecution of the church, hauling hundreds of Jesus’ followers to prison.
When we read this, it’s hard at first to imagine why God allowed believers to go to jail. Because we know the rest of the story, however, we know God used every single detail of Saul’s persecution for good.
First, the Bible doesn’t say, and I don’t want to preach false Scripture, but I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that those witnesses in jail had some sort of impact on others on the inside.
Second, God used Saul’s misdeeds to later convict him and turn him into the greatest apostle in the Bible. We know Saul as the Apostle Paul!
So, while Saul persecuted hundreds, Paul has saved millions – and continues to bring people to Christ today through the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ.
Paul himself later ended up in prison, and he thanked God for it! He writes the church in Philippi about the blessing of being in chains: “Now I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel. As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. Because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly (Philippians 1:12-14 NIV).”
Paul takes advantage of his time in jail. He was there more than five years, off and on, and preached not only to his fellow prisoners but also to the guards, to whom he was frequently chained 24 hours a day.
Paul and Stephen are prime examples of Romans 8:28: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him.”
That same verse goes on to say that God predestined each of us for a life that will bring glory to God. He repeats this promise in Ephesians 1:11-14 when Paul writes that we all were chosen by God – even before we were born – to receive God’s grace and glory. All we have to do is choose God and follow Jesus!
To the prisoners of Sihanoukville: I encourage you to make the best of your time here. Thank God for placing you among hundreds to whom you can share the Word of God each and every day. Make a choice to continue sharing and following Jesus even when you leave here because God has great plans for you, even in here, if you follow him. When the days are long, and it seems like you will be here forever, God is thinking about you, watching you, preparing you, making great plans for you. He tells you so in Jeremiah 29:11: “’For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’”
Dear Lord, thank you for the Godly men in this prison. Thank you for loving them. Thank you for giving us hardships. Thank you for placing us in difficult circumstances. Give us the strength and the courage to always bear witness for you in all situations. Thank you for faithfully blessing us each time we do. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.