May 22, 2011
Acts 7:55-60; 8:1-4

October 8, 1871, is a date forever etched in the consciousness of Chicago, for it was the date of the Great Chicago Fire that ultimately cost more than $200 million. The exact origin of the fire has been debated through the years, and the original story of Catherine O’Leary’s cow kicking over a lantern has been debunked as the fruit of a reporter’s imagination.

The most likely cause was an accident in a barn that was fueled through a clumsy attempt to douse the flames. Apparently, Louis M. Cohn, in a fit of anger at losing money in a craps game, threw a cigarette or lantern against a stall door. The hay caught fire, and the drunk gamblers were unsuccessful at putting it out. Instead of letting it burn itself out, they panicked and ran, leaving the barn open. A strong wind from Lake Michigan blew through and fanned the small flames into an inferno.

While we all want to be part of an “on fire” church (metaphorically speaking), most of us are not eager to endure the process of igniting the fire. Church history teaches us that the origins of the greatest revival fires have one thing in common: Persecution is almost always the accelerant. However, persecution does not guarantee revival flames, and too often persecution accomplishes its desire of killing a church or a potential movement of God.

The good news is that when we figure out how to spark the embers of godliness into a flame of revival during times of persecution, the church thrives and brings glory to God.

I. Confess Christ before men (v. 7:56).
Even in a time of great peril with his life at stake, Stephen was willing to confess Christ before the antagonistic members of the Sanhedrin. Stephen understood that loving Christ was more important than loving his own life.

 How willing are we to confess Christ before others at school, work, family functions or any occasion in which Christian faith is in the minority? Perhaps your confession in the face of persecution will become the catalyst for a great movement of God.

II. Pray for your persecutors (v. 7:60).
Stephen emulated Christ’s dying grace by praying for those who were killing him. Imagine the shame that overcame those within hearing distance. Perhaps this episode was a haunting memory that stayed with him his entire life.

Most of us do not have experience with what to do when facing an undeserved violent death. Thus, it is critical to determine who the real enemy is and develop a forgiving spirit.

Has anyone treated you unjustly? Are you willing to forgive them, even if they do not see their culpability? Refusing to forgive is like holding a rattlesnake by the tail while it repeatedly bites you. Unforgiveness is a poison to the soul.

III. Stand firm in God’s will (v. 8:1).
While the members of the fledgling church dispersed in a rush to save their lives, the leaders stayed. The apostles might have been tempted to flee, but they understood that safety was dependent on the Lord. It is true the safest place to be is in the center of God’s will.

When you are going through a tough time in your ministry, are you more likely to flee for perceived safety or stand firm in God’s will? Remember the Lord who called you into that situation is still Lord when the hurt comes.

IV. Preach the word (v. 8:4).
The barbaric tactics of the Sanhedrin did not eliminate the church. Instead, the church multiplied because the scattered disciples resumed their duty of telling the gospel story.

The key principle here is that we should not compromise when facing persecution. When John Bunyan was preaching in 17th century England, he was imprisoned several times because he refused to sign a license for the Church of England. His request to one of the prison guards speaks to his commitment: “If in a weak moment, I start to sign their license, please draw your sword from your sheath and sever my hand from my arm.”

Are you willing to stand for the truth of Scripture even when it is not popular? Are you raising your children to stand firm in the face of persecution?

Historians now say the Great Chicago Fire turned out to be a good thing for the city. It sparked an unprecedented time of building, community spirit and economic prosperity. It is doubtful if anyone standing and watching the fire rage that night thought the outcome would be positive. Perhaps you are going through a time of persecution; and everyone is convinced you will fail, and your ministry will end up on the ash heap. Why not confess Christ before men, pray for your persecutors, stand firm in God’s will, and keep preaching the Word? Watch God take your burn out and fan flames of revival in your heart and in your ministry.

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