Stephen, brimming with God's grace and energy, was doing wonderful things among the people, unmistakable signs that God was among them.
But then some men from the meeting place whose membership was made up of freed slaves, Cyrenians, Alexandrians, and some others from Cilicia and Asia, went up against him trying to argue him down.
But they were no match for his wisdom and spirit when he spoke.
So in secret they bribed men to lie: "We heard him cursing Moses and God."
That stirred up the people, the religious leaders, and religion scholars. They grabbed Stephen and took him before the High Council
They put forward their bribed witnesses to testify: "This man talks nonstop against this Holy Place and God's Law.
We even heard him say that Jesus of Nazareth would tear this place down and throw out all the customs Moses gave us."
As all those who sat on the High Council looked at Stephen, they found they couldn't take their eyes off him - his face was like the face of an angel!
Then the Chief Priest said, "What do you have to say for yourself?"
Stephen replied, "Friends, fathers, and brothers, the God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was still in Mesopotamia, before the move to Haran,
and told him, 'Leave your country and family and go to the land I'll show you.'
"So he left the country of the Chaldees and moved to Haran. After the death of his father, he immigrated to this country where you now live,
but God gave him nothing, not so much as a foothold. He did promise to give the country to him and his son later on, even though Abraham had no son at the time.
God let him know that his offspring would move to an alien country where they would be enslaved and brutalized for four hundred years.
'But,' God said, 'I will step in and take care of those slaveholders and bring my people out so they can worship me in this place.'
"Then he made a covenant with him and signed it in Abraham's flesh by circumcision. When Abraham had his son Isaac, within eight days he reproduced the sign of circumcision in him. Isaac became father of Jacob, and Jacob father of twelve 'fathers,' each faithfully passing on the covenant sign.
"But then those 'fathers,' burning up with jealousy, sent Joseph off to Egypt as a slave. God was right there with him, though -
he not only rescued him from all his troubles but brought him to the attention of Pharaoh, king of Egypt. He was so impressed with Joseph that he put him in charge of the whole country, including his own personal affairs.
"Later a famine descended on that entire region, stretching from Egypt to Canaan, bringing terrific hardship. Our hungry fathers looked high and low for food, but the cupboard was bare.
Jacob heard there was food in Egypt and sent our fathers to scout it out.
Having confirmed the report, they went back to Egypt a second time to get food. On that visit, Joseph revealed his true identity to his brothers and introduced the Jacob family to Pharaoh.
Then Joseph sent for his father, Jacob, and everyone else in the family, seventy-five in all.
That's how the Jacob family got to Egypt.
They were taken to Shechem and buried in the tomb for which Abraham paid a good price to the sons of Hamor.
"When the four hundred years were nearly up, the time God promised Abraham for deliverance, the population of our people in Egypt had become very large.
And there was now a king over Egypt who had never heard of Joseph.
He exploited our race mercilessly. He went so far as forcing us to abandon our newborn infants, exposing them to the elements to die a cruel death.
"In just such a time Moses was born, a most beautiful baby. He was hidden at home for three months.
When he could be hidden no longer, he was put outside - and immediately rescued by Pharaoh's daughter, who mothered him as her own son.
Moses was educated in the best schools in Egypt. He was equally impressive as a thinker and an athlete.
"When he was forty years old, he wondered how everything was going with his Hebrew kin and went out to look things over.
He saw an Egyptian abusing one of them and stepped in, avenging his underdog brother by knocking the Egyptian flat.
He thought his brothers would be glad that he was on their side, and even see him as an instrument of God to deliver them. But they didn't see it that way.
The next day two of them were fighting and he tried to break it up, told them to shake hands and get along with each other: 'Friends, you are brothers, why are you beating up on each other?'
"The one who had started the fight said, 'Who put you in charge of us?
Are you going to kill me like you killed that Egyptian yesterday?'
When Moses heard that, realizing that the word was out, he ran for his life and lived in exile over in Midian. During the years of exile, two sons were born to him.
"Forty years later, in the wilderness of Mount Sinai, an angel appeared to him in the guise of flames of a burning bush.
Moses, not believing his eyes, went up to take a closer look. He heard God's voice:
'I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.' Frightened nearly out of his skin, Moses shut his eyes and turned away.
"God said, 'Kneel and pray. You are in a holy place, on holy ground.
I've seen the agony of my people in Egypt. I've heard their groans. I've come to help them. So get yourself ready; I'm sending you back to Egypt.'
"This is the same Moses whom they earlier rejected, saying, 'Who put you in charge of us?' This is the Moses that God, using the angel flaming in the burning bush, sent back as ruler and redeemer.
He led them out of their slavery. He did wonderful things, setting up God-signs all through Egypt, down at the Red Sea, and out in the wilderness for forty years.
This is the Moses who said to his congregation, 'God will raise up a prophet just like me from your descendants.'
This is the Moses who stood between the angel speaking at Sinai and your fathers assembled in the wilderness and took the life-giving words given to him and handed them over to us,
words our fathers would have nothing to do with.
whining to Aaron, 'Make us gods we can see and follow. This Moses who got us out here miles from nowhere - who knows what's happened to him!'
That was the time when they made a calf-idol, brought sacrifices to it, and congratulated each other on the wonderful religious program they had put together.
"God wasn't at all pleased; but he let them do it their way, worship every new god that came down the pike - and live with the consequences, consequences described by the prophet Amos: Did you bring me offerings of animals and grains those forty wilderness years, O Israel?
Hardly. You were too busy building shrines to war gods, to sex goddesses, Worshiping them with all your might. That's why I put you in exile in Babylon.
"And all this time our ancestors had a tent shrine for true worship, made to the exact specifications God provided Moses.
They had it with them as they followed Joshua, when God cleared the land of pagans, and still had it right down to the time of David.
David asked God for a permanent place for worship.
But Solomon built it.
"Yet that doesn't mean that Most High God lives in a building made by carpenters and masons. The prophet Isaiah put it well when he wrote,
"Heaven is my throne room; I rest my feet on earth. So what kind of house will you build me?" says God. "Where I can get away and relax?
It's already built, and I built it."
"And you continue, so bullheaded! Calluses on your hearts, flaps on your ears! Deliberately ignoring the Holy Spirit, you're just like your ancestors.
Was there ever a prophet who didn't get the same treatment? Your ancestors killed anyone who dared talk about the coming of the Just One. And you've kept up the family tradition - traitors and murderers, all of you.
You had God's Law handed to you by angels - gift-wrapped! - and you squandered it!"
At that point they went wild, a rioting mob of catcalls and whistles and invective.
But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, hardly noticed - he only had eyes for God, whom he saw in all his glory with Jesus standing at his side.
He said, "Oh! I see heaven wide open and the Son of Man standing at God's side!"
Yelling and hissing, the mob drowned him out. Now in full stampede,
they dragged him out of town and pelted him with rocks. The ringleaders took off their coats and asked a young man named Saul to watch them.
As the rocks rained down, Stephen prayed, "Master Jesus, take my life."
Then he knelt down, praying loud enough for everyone to hear, "Master, don't blame them for this sin" - his last words. Then he died. Saul was right there, congratulating the killers.
That set off a terrific persecution of the church in Jerusalem. The believers were all scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. All, that is, but the apostles.
Good and brave men buried Stephen, giving him a solemn funeral - not many dry eyes that day!
And Saul just went wild, devastating the church, entering house after house after house, dragging men and women off to jail.
Forced to leave home base, the Christians all became missionaries. Wherever they were scattered, they preached the Message about Jesus.
Going down to a Samaritan city, Philip proclaimed the Message of the Messiah.
When the people heard what he had to say and saw the miracles, the clear signs of God's action, they hung on his every word.
Many who could neither stand nor walk were healed that day. The evil spirits protested loudly as they were sent on their way.
And what joy in the city!
Previous to Philip's arrival, a certain Simon had practiced magic in the city, posing as a famous man and dazzling all the Samaritans with his wizardry.
He had them all, from little children to old men, eating out of his hand. They all thought he had supernatural powers, and called him "the Great Wizard."
He had been around a long time and everyone was more or less in awe of him.
But when Philip came to town announcing the news of God's kingdom and proclaiming the name of Jesus Christ, they forgot Simon and were baptized, becoming believers right and left!
Even Simon himself believed and was baptized. From that moment he was like Philip's shadow, so fascinated with all the God-signs and miracles that he wouldn't leave Philip's side.
When the apostles in Jerusalem received the report that Samaria had accepted God's Message, they sent Peter and John down
to pray for them to receive the Holy Spirit.
Up to this point they had only been baptized in the name of the Master Jesus; the Holy Spirit hadn't yet fallen on them.
Then the apostles laid their hands on them and they did receive the Holy Spirit.
When Simon saw that the apostles by merely laying on hands conferred the Spirit, he pulled out his money, excited,
and said, "Sell me your secret! Show me how you did that! How much do you want? Name your price!"
Peter said, "To hell with your money! And you along with it. Why, that's unthinkable - trying to buy God's gift!
You'll never be part of what God is doing by striking bargains and offering bribes.
Change your ways - and now! Ask the Master to forgive you for trying to use God to make money.
I can see this is an old habit with you; you reek with money-lust."
"Oh!" said Simon, "pray for me! Pray to the Master that nothing like that will ever happen to me!"
And with that, the apostles were on their way, continuing to witness and spread the Message of God's salvation, preaching in every Samaritan town they passed through on their return to Jerusalem.
Later God's angel spoke to Philip: "At noon today I want you to walk over to that desolate road that goes from Jerusalem down to Gaza."
He got up and went. He met an Ethiopian eunuch coming down the road. The eunuch had been on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem and was returning to Ethiopia, where he was minister in charge of all the finances of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians.
He was riding in a chariot and reading the prophet Isaiah.
The Spirit told Philip, "Climb into the chariot."
Running up alongside, Philip heard the eunuch reading Isaiah and asked, "Do you understand what you're reading?"
He answered, "How can I without some help?" and invited Philip into the chariot with him.
The passage he was reading was this: As a sheep led to slaughter, and quiet as a lamb being sheared, He was silent, saying nothing.
He was mocked and put down, never got a fair trial. But who now can count his kin since he's been taken from the earth?
The eunuch said, "Tell me, who is the prophet talking about: himself or some other?"
Philip grabbed his chance. Using this passage as his text, he preached Jesus to him.
As they continued down the road, they came to a stream of water. The eunuch said, "Here's water. Why can't I be baptized?"
He ordered the chariot to stop. They both went down to the water, and Philip baptized him on the spot.
When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of God suddenly took Philip off, and that was the last the eunuch saw of him. But he didn't mind. He had what he'd come for and went on down the road as happy as he could be.
Philip showed up in Azotus and continued north, preaching the Message in all the villages along that route until he arrived at Caesarea.
All this time Saul was breathing down the necks of the Master's disciples, out for the kill. He went to the Chief Priest
and got arrest warrants to take to the meeting places in Damascus so that if he found anyone there belonging to the Way, whether men or women, he could arrest them and bring them to Jerusalem.
He set off. When he got to the outskirts of Damascus, he was suddenly dazed by a blinding flash of light.
As he fell to the ground, he heard a voice: "Saul, Saul, why are you out to get me?"
He said, "Who are you, Master?" "I am Jesus, the One you're hunting down.
I want you to get up and enter the city. In the city you'll be told what to do next."
His companions stood there dumbstruck - they could hear the sound, but couldn't see anyone -
while Saul, picking himself up off the ground, found himself stone blind. They had to take him by the hand and lead him into Damascus.
He continued blind for three days. He ate nothing, drank nothing.
There was a disciple in Damascus by the name of Ananias. The Master spoke to him in a vision: "Ananias." "Yes, Master?" he answered.
"Get up and go over to Straight Avenue. Ask at the house of Judas for a man from Tarsus. His name is Saul. He's there praying.
He has just had a dream in which he saw a man named Ananias enter the house and lay hands on him so he could see again."
Ananias protested, "Master, you can't be serious. Everybody's talking about this man and the terrible things he's been doing, his reign of terror against your people in Jerusalem!
And now he's shown up here with papers from the Chief Priest that give him license to do the same to us."
But the Master said, "Don't argue. Go! I have picked him as my personal representative to Gentiles and kings and Jews.
And now I'm about to show him what he's in for - the hard suffering that goes with this job."
So Ananias went and found the house, placed his hands on blind Saul, and said, "Brother Saul, the Master sent me, the same Jesus you saw on your way here. He sent me so you could see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit."
No sooner were the words out of his mouth than something like scales fell from Saul's eyes - he could see again! He got to his feet, was baptized,
and sat down with them to a hearty meal.
but then went right to work, wasting no time, preaching in the meeting places that this Jesus was the Son of God.
They were caught off guard by this and, not at all sure they could trust him, they kept saying, "Isn't this the man who wreaked havoc in Jerusalem among the believers? And didn't he come here to do the same thing - arrest us and drag us off to jail in Jerusalem for sentencing by the high priests?"
But their suspicions didn't slow Saul down for even a minute. His momentum was up now and he plowed straight into the opposition, disarming the Damascus Jews and trying to show them that this Jesus was the Messiah.
After this had gone on quite a long time, some Jews conspired to kill him,
but Saul got wind of it. They were watching the city gates around the clock so they could kill him.
Then one night the disciples engineered his escape by lowering him over the wall in a basket.
Back in Jerusalem he tried to join the disciples, but they were all afraid of him. They didn't trust him one bit.
Then Barnabas took him under his wing. He introduced him to the apostles and stood up for him, told them how Saul had seen and spoken to the Master on the Damascus Road and how in Damascus itself he had laid his life on the line with his bold preaching in Jesus' name.
After that he was accepted as one of them, going in and out of Jerusalem with no questions asked, uninhibited as he preached in the Master's name.
But then he ran afoul of a group called Hellenists - he had been engaged in a running argument with them - who plotted his murder.
When his friends learned of the plot, they got him out of town, took him to Caesarea, and then shipped him off to Tarsus.
Things calmed down after that and the church had smooth sailing for a while. All over the country - Judea, Samaria, Galilee - the church grew. They were permeated with a deep sense of reverence for God. The Holy Spirit was with them, strengthening them. They prospered wonderfully.
Published by permission. Originally published by NavPress in English as THE MESSAGE: The Bible in Contemporary Language copyright 2002 by Eugene Peterson. All rights reserved. (The Message Bible Online)