Stephen

(The audio and video of John Piper's reading are from 2007.) 

Outside the Council hall, the six
Leaned hard against the blackened bricks
And tried to see the man whose voice
They loved.

The church had made its choice
Of Stephen first—and no surprise:
He was a humble man and wise.
He wore the crown of wisdom like
A child; but when he spoke, the strike
Of lightning came less piercing than
The words of this courageous man.

Outside the Council hall, the six
Leaned hard against the blackened bricks
And heard the golden voice begin
To rise—not bitter at the sin
Of so-called Freedmen or the lies
Of bribery or the blinded eyes
Of Alexandrians—but bold
And solid like a bar of gold.

"‘All heaven is my holy throne!
And earth belongs to me alone,
My footstool!' Says the Lord of hosts.
‘Shall I be awed by marble posts,
Or stand in debt to hammered wings?
Did not my hand make all these things?'
Now hearken, stiff-necked Israel,
Bend down your brazen back and tell
Your Maker you have sinned. Repent!
That you have killed whom God had sent,
And then within the temple shade
Broke every law that he had made."

He hadn't always been this strong.
There were the times not very long
Ago, when he was just a kid
Who trembled at the dawn, and hid
When his turn came to speak in school,
And felt like he was just a fool
When Jews and Gentiles called him names,
"Hey, Stevie-half-breed!" And the flames
Of shame would cauterize his cheek.
His brilliant father was a Greek,
His gentle mother was a Jew.
And that meant he was split in two,
A mongrel to the other boys.

At first he took his little toys
And played alone, then later on,
In years when all the toys were gone,
He took his father's parchments down
And crafted for himself a crown
Of knowledge in the solitude
Of his own room, safe from the rude
And painful mockery of life.

The years went by, he took a wife,
Who bore him sons, and Stephen swore
One day (he thought) for evermore
That neither he nor they would be
The victim of such mockery
Again.

But then the Christ appeared.
And Stephen watched while he was smeared
In Nazareth and Tyre and then
Bethsaida, Sidon, Chorazin:
"Born of a virgin, Ha! We know
Another name for that. You crow
Too loud, Jesus of Nazareth!"
But Stephen stood and held his breath,
And trembled at the memory
Of ridicule and misery.
He followed him from place to place
And fixed his eyes on Jesus' face
Whenever scribes would jeer and hiss.
He'd never seen a face like this:
The eyes were brimming pools of peace;
No grudge or hate had cut its crease
Or set his jaw or drawn his lips,
Not even at the crack of whips
Or rattling of swords. "What kind
Of face is this," he thought, "maligned,
But without fear or guilt or rage?"
And Stephen seethed inside the cage
Of cowardice and bile.

Until
The day, with mouth agape and still,
He stood outside the city gate
And saw, as in a glass, the hate
Of timid men swell up and kill
The Lamb, His face!—One final glance
From Christ—all power and radiance!
The walls of Stephen's cage fell flat,
And bitterness shot like a bat
To find some other human cave,
And make some bitter soul a slave.

And Stephen made a solemn vow:
"I covenant, O Lord, from now
Until the day I die to love
My enemy. O God above,
Let me be broken now and brave."

Within a year the former slave
Was known through all Jerusalem
As "Deacon with a diadem!"
The childlike servant with a crown,
And golden tongue of truth, renown
For wisdom through the promised land,
And no one living could withstand.

But now inside the Council hall,
Cyrenians had tried to call
This man a blasphemer against
The law and God, and then dispensed
With legal trappings of the realm
And set themselves to overwhelm
The council with a brawl.

The six
Leaned hard against the blackened bricks.
But only Prochorus could see—
An old man out of Galilee,
Whose love for Stephen knew no bounds.
Parmenas pulled his cloak, "Those sounds,
What are they, Prochorus?" There rose
An awful murmur in the hall,
And then there broke above it all
The voice of gold: "Behold, I see
An opening in eternity,
A window in the heavens wide,
And there the Son of Man beside
The Lord of host—at his right hand—
And risen on their feet to stand
And witness to the thing you do,
And welcome me when you are through."

"What does he look like, Prochorus?"
The old man's face was ominous.
"He has the face of Gabriel,
Or even Christ, I fear. Run, tell
Elizabeth to meet us by
The eastern gate, Parmenas." "Why,
My father?" "She's his wife, my son,
And they should say farewell. Now run!"
"But, Prochorus, what will I say?
And what about the children?" "Pray,
Parmenas, God will speak for you,
Now go, there isn't time."

He knew
The treachery and speed of rage.
That morning yet he'd seen the stage
Already set with stones piled high
Outside the city gate. "But why
The young and brilliant sage?" he thought
Why not myself? My life is wrought.
A good efficient martyrdom:
The young remain, the old succumb.
"But God does not submit to our
Efficiency, and by his power
Some rules have simply been reversed:
The brightest star will burn out first."

The tumult of the crowd was wild.
Elizabeth with infant child
And Parmenas came breathless to
The eastern gate. "What can we do?"
She begged old Prochorus. He took
The child and gave him like a book
To Parmenas, and squeezed her hand,
"Elizabeth, here's what I've planned:
You might have five tolls of the bell
To touch his arm and say farewell.
Cover your head. Let's go." He grabbed
Her arm and plunged into the crowd,
And suddenly, as gross and loud
As all the rest, old Prochorus
Began to shout and push and cuss
His way toward Stephen's clanking chains.
They moved in close and saw the stains
Of blood already in his hair.
Then Prochorus whispered a prayer,
Struck Stephen on the back and thrust
Elizabeth covered with dust
Against his side. And while he railed
And pushed and swore, the people failed
To see their hands, nor could they hear
The final words. A stone flew near
Elizabeth, and suddenly
The crowd gave way so all could see
The prisoner. And Prochorus
Pulled them apart with hazardous
Delay, and took her out of view;
But heard the golden tongue come through,
And turned to see him once again.
He smiled, "God cleanse your tongue, old man!"

And as the stones increased in size,
He knelt and lifted up his eyes:
"O God, these are my enemies!
I gladly serve them on my knees,
Have mercy on them, O my God!
Have mercy, Christ, lay down the rod!
Have mercy, Spirit, melt their hearts,
And move them as my soul departs!
Lord Jesus, I have kept my vow!
Please, come, and take my spirit now."

But not from us, O Lord, I pray
As we light candle one today!

©2014 Desiring God Foundation. Used by Permission.

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Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: By John Piper. ©2014 Desiring God Foundation. Website: desiringGod.org