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Daily Devotional • December 26
Feast of St. Stephen, Deacon and Martyr

James Cornwell
Filled with the Spirit
A Reading from 2 Chronicles 24:17-22

17 Now after the death of Jehoiada the officials of Judah came and did obeisance to the king; then the king listened to them. 18 They abandoned the house of the Lord, the God of their ancestors, and served the sacred poles and the idols. And wrath came upon Judah and Jerusalem for this guilt of theirs. 19 Yet he sent prophets among them to bring them back to the Lord; they testified against them, but they would not listen.

20 Then the spirit of God took possession of Zechariah son of the priest Jehoiada; he stood above the people and said to them, “Thus says God: Why do you transgress the commandments of the Lord, so that you cannot prosper? Because you have forsaken the Lord, he has also forsaken you.” 21 But they conspired against him, and by command of the king they stoned him to death in the court of the house of the Lord. 22 King Joash did not remember the kindness that Jehoiada, Zechariah’s father, had shown him but killed his son. As he was dying, he said, “May the Lord see and avenge!”

St. Stephen is noted by the author of Acts as “full of faith and of the Holy Spirit” and is immediately thereafter described as facing down religious leaders and false witnesses. He unpacks the truth of the gospel and boldly proclaims the reality of the leaders’ complicity in the murder of the Son of God. Unable to contain their rage, the mob arises, casts him from the city, and stones him.

If St. Stephen is the first martyr of the New Testament, Zechariah ben Jehoida is the last martyr of the Old. Just as St. Stephen exhorted the religious leaders to hear the promise of God the Son, so did Zechariah attempt to recall the people of Judah to the promise of God the Father. Both men met the same end at the hands of the mobs to which they preached.

However, there are two stark differences in the text that highlight the nature of the difference that Christmas makes. Zechariah is said to be “clothed” by the Holy Spirit, whereas St. Stephen is “filled” by that same Spirit. We see the result of this indwelling in the other textual difference. Zechariah’s last words are, “May the Lord see, and revenge!” St. Stephen’s are, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” 

The Incarnation means God’s victory over human division and strife — over sin — is complete. As Christians, we are no longer permitted to behave otherwise. To refuse to forgive another’s sins against us is to push the Holy Spirit from our hearts and attempt to wear him only as an outer garment. It is to join the ranks of those who could not bear to hear the Christmas truth, and murdered the one who spoke it. But thanks be to God that he whom the Son sets free is free indeed.

James Cornwell lives and works in Wheaton, Illinois, with his wife Sarah and their seven children.

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