We love to ask God to vindicate us and prove others wrong—even if the “others” are fellow Jesus lovers. We get wounded by them, and our bleeding hearts cry, “JUSTICE! GOD, GIVE ME JUSTICE!” We think that justice always means being repaid good for the evil brought upon us. If that were so, then why would Jesus give us the command to forgive and to bless those who persecute us? Was He violating His own principles of justice? Why would He say such a thing as this, for example: “To the one who strikes you on the jaw or cheek, offer the other jaw or cheek also; and from him who takes away your outer garment, do not withhold your undergarment as well” (Luke 6:29).
A look into the final words of Stephen, the first martyr, is a good exercise. The Bible describes Stephen as a “man full of God’s grace and power,” and one who moved in wonders and miraculous signs (Acts 6:8). He was one of those chosen by the apostles to distribute food to widows. Because of the boldness and wisdom in him, he had enemies. Stephen was seized, brought to the Sanhedrin, accused of blasphemy, and stoned to death. His last words as he fell to his knees were, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Among those present in his death was the Pharisee, Saul, who at that time, was giving approval of Stephen’s death (see the full story in Acts 6 & 7).
The last words of Stephen ought to ring in our hearts. He was violently killed, yet Stephen chose to forgive his murderers. He also waived whatever right of justice he had against these men. In fact, He wanted God not to hold their sin against them. Let’s pause a moment and let that sink in. How many of us have been in a situation where the people we needed to forgive were physically murdering us or doing some type of capital punishment against us? Let’s be truthful: how many times would we rather curse people who hurt us—even if it’s only our ego they’ve hurt? We say, “God, okay, okay, okay—I won’t do anything bad against them. You be the one! You said that vengeance is yours, right? You will repay? Didn’t David pray the kind of prayers asking You to destroy his enemies?”
Yet Jesus offers us a higher standard. It is a standard higher than vindication or vengeance. It is a standard, where on the cross, the Lamb who took away the sins of the world said, “Father forgive them for they do not know what they are doing.” It is a standard that Stephen chose to follow when he said, “Father, do not hold this sin against them.”
What happens when we choose to forgive and release mercy and love instead of judgment? The Lord– because He champions justice and righteousness– will make sure that whatever deficit is “owed” to us will result in a “filling up” of that deficit where His power, life, and transformation can flow. There will be a balancing of the scales in a way where the kingdom of darkness could never win. Death was NOT the end of Stephen’s life. His death and prayer set off an explosive release of justice in a Kingdom where God stood for His martyr. The seed of death and the power of forgiveness now created a supernatural demand for life to be released on the earth.
Who would have the front seat in seeing life spread throughout the nations? The unlikeliest of people: Saul, the man who approved of Stephen’s death.
It is paradoxical but redeeming. It is mercy, but it is justice at the same time. Jesus Himself confronts Saul and takes on the side of the first martyr, Stephen. “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?… I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (Acts 9:4-5) Our very own worst enemies can be won over to the Lord (and be on fire for the Lord) if we are willing to take on the higher standard that Christ has set before us. The question is, “How much of Christ’s love lives in us so that we are willing to move in love and not call fire and brimstone on the heads of everyone who hurts us?
Our desire for revenge and anger should be put aside. Whenever someone sins against us, instead of wishing the worst possible things to happen against them, let us have hearts that are willing to reach for the higher standard.
Janina Marie Rivera is the Editor-in-Chief of One Voice Magazine, a teacher of world literature, and a student of the Bible. She enjoys reflecting on life’s curve balls and plateaus. She resides in the Philippines, the country known for people who smile a lot.