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World Changers

April 28, 2002

Acts 7:55-60

by Tony Grant


Hinges and Changes

Have you ever thought about major historical changes, hinges in history--like 1914 [start of WWI], 1929 [stock market crash], 1945 [Hiroshima and Nagasaki], and maybe the morning of September 11, 2001. These are pivots on which our lives move from one world to another. After we swing past them, it is hard to remember what the previous world was like. For example, when college students of today were asked why fraternity boys of the 1950s competed to see how many people they could stuff into a telephone booth, their response was: What is a telephone booth?

Reasonable people differ on what a historical hinge is. Some point to the start of World War II or the fall of the Berlin Wall as hinges. Such debates fuel the history book industry.

Historians even argue about whether people living through a historical hinge know what is happening. "You can't possibly tell whether it is a hinge until you have two historical periods to connect it to, one before and one afterward," says Freeman Dyson, the renowned Princeton quantum physicist and futurist. "It makes no sense to attempt historical judgment about an event that happened only two weeks ago." I tend to agree with Dyson. Unfortunately, that means that it is too early to talk about whether September 11, 2001 was a historical hinge. I suspect not, but I will let future historians decide. Actually our president has said that we should not consider September 11 as a historical hinge. He said that Americans should get back to normalcy. He urged listeners in Chicago to "Get down to Disney World in Florida." If some economists and business leaders are to be believed, the terrorists will have won if Americans do not go shopping. I promise you that no one that after Pearl Harbor—and many historians do not even consider Pearl Harbor to be a historical hinge, but only a continuation of WWI. Crises are moments that demand re-evaluation, decision, and concrete change—with no return to what was considered normal.

David West and Steve Parker have written a sixty-two page paperback titled 53 Things that Changed the World -- and Some that Didn't. as you might gather from the titile they talk about all sorts of things that have changed the world, things like music, clothes, books, even human speech. They mention primitive discoveries such as fire and the wheel and modern creations such as jet engines and computers. They also mention some disastrous inventions that did not change the world

I suspect that we overdo the phrase "change the world." A recent column by Internet columnist Guy Kewney extols the virtues of Microsoft's Passport. Passport is basically an Internet identity card. Kewney predicts. "It will make e-commerce easier, safer, more popular. It will change the world." I have one. I have a Microsoft passport. I do not feel all that changed. I do not not feel the earth move.

Book reviewer Jonathan Yardley recently plugged the words "Changed the World" into, and his search produced 309 items. Among them: the color mauve, the codfish, the Fender bass, the U.S. women's soccer team, coast-to-coast auto races of the early 1900s, flowers, banana pie, twelve lesbian superstars, Max Factor, Scotland, Princess Di, pop music and, of course,

Yardley did find one item that certainly qualifies for the distinction of world changer. He found it in Amir Aczel's book The Riddle of the Compass. The compass was probably invented by the Chinese at least 150 years before it began to be used in Europe, which was around A.D. 1200. Before the compass, sailors relied on the skies for information about their location; in cloudy and stormy weather they were clueless. The compass changed all that and made shipping faster and safer, allowing for busy trading routes to develop, linking the world together in the first phase of what we now call the "death of distance." So, yes, the magnetic compass was a world-changer.

About a thousand years before the compass was invented, however, the appearance of Christ, the True Compass, introduced a new way to navigate spiritual waters and the treacherous shoals of life. In Acts 6-7 we see how influential the Christ as Compass was in the life of the early church. These chapters give us a picture of a completely new way of life, one based entirely on the direction provided by Jesus.



Acts 6-7 is the story of the martyrdom of Stephen. If this story were a compass needle, it would point straight as an arrow back to the gospel of Luke. For example, we read in v55 that Stephen "being full of the Holy Spirit, looked up stedfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God." In Luke 9:32 we read that at the transfiguration when Peter and those who were with him awakened, they saw Christ in his glory. Again, in Luke 22:69, the charge of blasphemy is brought against Jesus (similar to the charge of blasphemy brought against Stephen in Acts 7), and Jesus says: "From now on the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the power of God." The rush to stone Stephen echoes the scene in Luke 4:28-29 when a crowd of enraged members of the Nazareth synagogue drag Jesus to the outskirts of town and attempt to push him off a cliff. Even Stephen's last words echo Jesus' words from the cross. Both commend their souls to God (Acts 7:59; Luke 23:46) and both pray for pardon for those responsible for their martyrdom (Acts 7:60; Luke 23:34).

We are introduced to Stephen in Acts 6:1-7. He was one of seven Greek converts to Christianity who were given the responsibility for distributing food to the widows and for making sure that the various factions of the community are treated equally. These seven are more than simply appointed to this work. They are "ordained" to it by the laying on of hands by the disciples and the vote of the community. Stephen's reputation was outstanding. He is described as "full of faith and the Holy Spirit" (6:5), "full of grace and power, [doing] great wonders and signs among the people" (6:8).

However, those who disagreed with Stephen's preaching of Christ began to spread the rumor that his teaching was blasphemy (6:10-12). He was taken before a religious court in which false witnesses were arrayed against him and the charge of blasphemy was filed (6:12-14). Chapter 7 contains a marvelous sermon delivered by Stephen to the court. He did not mince words. He accused them of having murdered Christ just as their ancestors had murdered previous prophets. Stephen certainly was not prudent or cautious. But then you see his world had been totally changed by Jesus. He had a new compass.


Stephen begats Saul

In one sense, we can see the story of Stephen as the tragedy of a courageous witness who paid for his faith with his life. In the flow of the narrative of the book of Acts, however, the story serves another purpose. The arrow on the compass that points from Christ to Stephen, points from Stephen To Saul of Tarsus. Acts7:58 marks the initial appearance of Saul in the narrative of Acts. It is not accidental that Saul, who would become the Apostle Paul, the most influential disciple in all history, met Stephen. Saul never met Jesus at least not in the flesh, but Saul did meet Stephen, the one whose martyrdom so closely resembled that of Christ.

The nature of Saul's conversion is made even more compelling when we realize where his exposure to Christianity began. It is not only said that Saul held everyone's coats while they stoned Stephen (Acts 7:58), it is also noted in Acts 8:1 that Saul approved of the execution. After Acts 8:3, where we are told of Saul's imprisoning of other Christians, we do not hear of him in the text again until chapter 9, in which he is converted. The similarity between Jesus' and Stephen's martyrdoms may also be reflected in Christ's words to Saul on the Damascus road, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me" (Acts 9:4). In part, Jesus is saying, "Saul, Saul why did you help kill Stephen."

By serving as the connection between Christ and Saul of Tarsus, Stephen stands at a critical juncture in church history. By being witness to Stephen's death, by being an accessory to Stephen’s death, Saul unwittingly participates in the death of Christ. His guilt as executioner of the faithful is established, so that when Christ does appear to him, he feels himself guilty and spends the rest of his ministry in one large act of atonement.

So Stephen becomes a world-changer, or to put it more accurately, Stephan lives in a world that has been changed by the ultimate World-Changer, Jesus Christ. Stephan participates in that world change.

In MT11:30, Jesus said, "My yoke is easy, and my burden is light." The yoke represents the love that we have for Christ. Stephen had taken the yoke of Christ. He has found it light and easy indeed. He suffered willingly, gladly, afflictions and death. He did not demand that God should deliver him from tribulation. He did not want to be delivered. Is not that a radical note. In all our prayers, we are always praying for God to deliver us from the least of troubles. Stephen does not care about anything like that. He wanted only to be steadfast in Christ. A worldly person would say that this is insane, would say that it is unbelievable that a person would act as Stephan does, but, you see, a worldly person does not know that the world has been changed.

Stephan was the first martyr of the Christian church because he set his sail according to the Christ Compass. As such, he is a prototype, model, compass, for each of us.

The Covells

Down through the ages, we have had many Stephans. For example, James "Jimmy" Covell and his wife, Charma, were American Baptist missionaries serving in the Philippines in the 1930’s. They were two of eighteen American Baptist missionaries serving on the central island of Panay about 350 miles south of Manila. Shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the missionaries on Panay held a meeting in Iloilo City to consider what they should do. They decided to continue in their respective locations as long as possible.

The eleven missionaries and one child that remained, along with three miners and two children, scattered when the Japanese soldiers arrived but they were soon captured. They were told that they would be put to death the next day. Jimmy Covell pleaded with the soldiers in Japanese. The leader of the battalion, Tai Watanabe, seeming to be influenced by the appeal, radioed his headquarters for orders.

The answer came about noon the next day, December 20, insisting that the order be carried out. The Covells said that they had nothing to do with the war, but the soldiers would not listen. Finally, the missionaries asked for time to pray. This request was granted. The little group formed a circle and prayed together. After about an hour the missionaries came forward, singing a hymn and saying they were ready. One by one, each adult was led to the mountaintop and beheaded. The children were stabbed to death. Many Filipinos who protected their American sisters and brothers went on to become strong leaders in the Convention of Philippine Baptist Churches. They became pastors, teachers, and engineers; one became the general secretary of the Convention. For each of them the suffering and sacrifice of their American friends became a deep inspiration for their service to God. The Covells are living proof of the old saying that the church grows from the blood of its martyrs.

Modern Christian Martyrs

Pope John Paul II has paid tribute to the Christian martyrs of the twentieth century in a solemn ceremony at Rome's ancient Colosseum. Anglicans, Lutherans, Russian Orthodox, and Pentecostalists joined the pope in prayer in an unusual ecumenical event attended by thousands of pilgrims. The Pope said countless Christians had been united in their readiness to die for their faith in the twentieth century. Those who died in Soviet gulags, in Nazi and Japanese prison camps during World War II, in the 1994 Rwanda genocide and during the recent fundamentalist unrest in Algeria were honored in prayer and song.

In his sermon, the pope noted that some 3,000 priests were interned in the Nazi death camp at Dachau. A prayer read in Czech recalled the six million Jews who were killed in the Holocaust. The killing of more than a million Armenian Christians in Turkey during World War I was also remembered.

Saying he himself witnessed "much pain and many trials" as a young man in communist Poland, the pope said his generation was particularly marked by war, concentration camps, and persecution.

Special tributes were paid to Russian Orthodox Patriarch Tikhon, who stood up to the Bolsheviks after the 1917 revolution, and Olga Jafa, a Russian teacher exiled to a Soviet gulag. The tributes also included Anton Luli, an Albanian Catholic priest who spent twenty eight years in prison, and Paul Schneider, a Lutheran anti-Nazi priest tortured to death in Buchenwald concentration camp.

The pope said many of the people who suffered or died for their faith were "unknown soldiers," We will never know their names, but God knows and God insists that we remember as much as possible. As the pope said, "There are so many of them. They must not be forgotten. Rather they must be remembered and their lives documented." [ Retrieved November 5, 2001]

Remembrance and Imitation

We remember them not just as a matter of historical interest, but because they show us what we ought to be for Christ. They show us how to navigate by the compass of Christ, how to see Jesus as the directional signal that we follow in life and in death. The Theologia Germanica says, "The person in whom life is lived in true Light and in true Love leads the highest and noblest, best, and worthiest life that ever was and ever will be." [The Theologia Germanica of Martin Luther translation by Bengt Hoffman. (Paulist Press New York, Ramsey, Toronto , 1980) 128]. The "true Light" and "true Love" is Christ. The life lived in Christ is "the highest and noblest, best, and worthiest life that ever was and ever will be." Therefore we should love that life above all other kinds of life and seek that life above all other kinds of life. We should love Christ even more than our own life. That means that we should follow and obey Jesus. But then we Christians are always saying that. Do not misunderstand me, we should follow Jesus. The problem is that goal is always too much for us. So today I propose to you a lesser goal—a goal attain by millions of people in the last century, so this is a doable goal. The goal is to be like Stephen, to be like all these martyrs of the faith.

This means:

To act as a servant leader, working diligently for the welfare of others.

To speak boldly about our faith and to tell the story of God's love in Christ.

To look serenely to heaven, especially when the world is roaring with rage.

To trust our Lord to hold us close, in even the most desperate of situations.

To try to offer forgiveness to those who hurt us, as Jesus did on the cross.

That is what it means to follow the Christ-compass. That is what it means to live in the world-change that Christ produced. Living your faith. That is heroic. Holding fast to your convictions, whether people cheer you or crucify you--that is impressive. Looking for a spiritual life beyond the limitations of this world—that is inspiring. We live in a time and place where our task is not to die to change the world. Our task is to live in a particular way and move in a distinctive direction--with Christ as our compass. Amen.


Aczel, Amir D. The Riddle of the Compass: The Invention That Changed the World. Reviewed by Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post, August 23, 2001.

Kewney, Guy. "Intel's powerful processors." AnchorDeskUK,

Roberta Stephens and Ann Borquist, "From suffering and sacrifice comes JOY: the story of the Covell family," American Baptists in Mission, Summer 2000.


If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant

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