All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel. (Acts 6:15)
In 1 Peter 3:15, the Bible teaches that we should always be ready to answer someone who asks us to explain the reason for the hope that we have in Christ. The verse is often used as a general charter for apologetics, and instructors on the subject almost universally insist that it is to be done with “gentleness and respect,” not as defined by the internal context of Scripture, such as other biblical passages and examples from biblical characters, but as defined by contemporary non-Christian norms and cultures. The context of the verse, even the immediate context of 1 Peter 1-2, is seldom mentioned or applied to its interpretation.
It is often said that we can defend the faith without being defensive. This is one of the most idiotic and cliché statements in Christian writings, and it appears in so many places, whether in Evangelical, Reformed, Arminian, or Charismatic literature. But it is not a biblical teaching. A person who teaches with cliché statements is a lazy thinker, powerless expositor, and a useless believer. Still, I admit, an occasional cliché is not unforgivable. But a person who uses them too often is just a cliché person, unintelligent and uninteresting.
As anyone who actually reads Peter’s letter should perceive, the context of 3:15 is interrogation by authority figures. Depending on a person’s circumstances, such interrogation may very rarely happen, even if we include questioning by parents, teachers, and the like. The Christian does not have to answer his friend or a stranger on the street the same way that he answers a federal agent, a judge, or a king. Still less is a God-ordained preacher of the gospel required to always speak with soft words and tones to the general audience. In fact, if he does, he is most likely a weak and disobedient preacher, since the Bible says that some people ought to be rebuked sharply, so that they may be sound in the faith.
Whereas our encounters rarely fit the exact context of 1 Peter 3:15, Stephen’s situation fits very well. Those who teach that apologetics is to be done with non-Christian gentleness and respect are afraid of biblical examples, because so many of them contradict their interpretation of apostolic teaching. That is, if these teachers of apologetics are correct, then it must mean that the prophets and apostles all practiced the opposite behavior that they set forth for us to follow. Were they hypocrites? No, our apologetic professors say, they were exceptions. I assume that believers from other traditions say this too, but I hear this most often from Reformed apologists – shame, shame, shame. The Reformed mantras are “This is a mystery” and “That is an exception,” or as in many cases, “All of these are exceptions.” And this is why some Pentecostals wonder if the Evangelical and the Reformed even affirm biblical inerrancy. Let me tell you something: they think that you are the liberal theologians. Dutch Reformed? No, they say, you are Much Deformed.
But Stephen was not an apostle, and not a prophet. He was not even called an evangelist, or a pastor, or a teacher. The Bible says that he had the Holy Spirit, faith, grace, and power (Acts 6:5, 8). Thus anyone who calls him an exception also confesses that he lacks these things. And ironically, in this Stephen was indeed an exception. Our apologists may have a few good arguments, but the Spirit? Faith? Power? When it is put this way, I must accept the explanation. Stephen was a remarkable exception. Nevertheless, for those of us who possess Stephen’s spiritual inheritance, or at least who despise the sorry excuse, let us examine his answer, his apologetic.
His whole answer is interesting, but the culmination is most applicable to our topic. He recites the history of Abraham and Moses, then briefly, Joshua and David, and this builds up to verses 51-53: “You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him – you who have received the law that was put into effect through angels but have not obeyed it.” Stephen answered this way under official interrogation. It cannot possibly be reconciled with the common interpretation of 1 Peter 3:15. If their interpretation of 1 Peter 3:15 can accommodate this, then my disagreement with them ends. However, if I actually do it, let them not complain, but sit down and shut up.
Many positive reviews and endorsements for books on Christian apologetics share a common theme, that these books manage to provide sound arguments for the faith without becoming offensive, confrontational, or just plain rude. And debates about the existence of God and the truth of Christianity are often praised because the two sides remained cordial – that is, polite and academic – throughout the exchange. “How refreshing!” Christians would say. These people would not have approved of Stephen. They would have condemned the prophets and the apostles, and even Jesus Christ himself. After all, the Lord got physical and turned over tables. Will Christians now call him a terrorist? The truth is that these Christians are not brave enough, and they do not care enough. But they want to hide this, so they make behaviors that resemble those exhibited by the biblical characters into the wrong behaviors. It is now unbiblical to act like the prophet, the apostles, and Jesus Christ. Once again, those Pentecostals scratch their heads: Are these folks even Christians? Are these the liberal theologians that we hear so much about? Are these the anti-christs that John mentioned, who would lead people astray?
But I will follow Stephen. There might be an indirect way to say this, but this is meant to be brief: I have too little respect for these Christians to care what they think. I respect Stephen, because he received the Lord’s approval: “But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God'” (v. 55-56). I want that. Would Stephen have coveted a silly endorsement that says, “Stephen teaches us that we can disagree without being disagreeable”? Or, picking up a book on my floor to find another example, I read, “The author proves we don’t have to be abrasive to be persuasive.” Is that a jab at Stephen?
Stephen was full of the Holy Spirit, full of faith, grace, and power. When non-Christians argued with him, “they were not able to resist the wisdom and the spirit by which he spake” (6:10, KJV). If you still insist that he was an exception, then I will have to agree with you. I can see that you are right. You are nothing like him. And I hope that I will never be anything like you.