There is an interesting contrast between the reactions of the people who heard Peter speak on the day of Pentecost and the reactions of the religious authorities who heard Stephen speak in his own defense. Both groups heard the speaker say that they had murdered Jesus Christ. One group took the correction, was cut to the heart, and were willing to deal with their problem. They were humble enough to admit and face the fact that they were wrong. The other group became angry at being told they were wrong and not only rejected the correction, but retaliated against the one who corrected them. Their attitude illustrated their pride - they were too proud to admit even to themselves that they were wrong and became angry at anyone who challenged their self-image that they were right.
These two examples illustrate two possible reactions the public can have to the Church's message today and in the next several years. Those who are being called will accept the correction (if they respond to the call), but many who are not being called will become angry and will persecute the Church of God. Their pride will motivate them to fight against us and our message in order to preserve their favorable self-image and avoid having to admit they are wrong and need to change.
" 'Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.' Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, 'Men and brethren, what shall we do?' Then Peter said to them, 'Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children, and to all who are afar off, as many as the Lord our God will call.' And with many other words he testified and exhorted them, saying, 'Be saved from this perverse generation.' Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them" (Acts 2:36-41).
The people who heard Peter speak were told, in effect, that they were murderers, yet they did not react with anger but with sorrow over their sin. They were ready to admit they were wrong and to repent.
Now notice the reaction of Jewish scribes, elders, council, and high priest, the religious authorities, the "higher ups", to the words of Stephen.
"And Stephen, full of faith and power, did great wonders and signs among the people. Then there arose some from what is called the Synagogue of the Freedmen (Cyrenians, Alexandrians, and those from Cilicia and Asia), disputing with Stephen. And they were not able to resist the wisdom and the Spirit by which he spoke. Then they secretly induced men to say, 'We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.' And they stirred up the people, the elders, and the scribes; and they came upon him, seized him, and brought him to the council. They also set up false witnesses who said, 'This man does not cease to speak blasphemous words against this holy place and the law; for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs which Moses delivered to us.' And all who sat in the council, looking steadfastly at him, saw his face as the face of an angel" (Acts 6:8-15). "Then the high priest said, 'Are these things so?' " (Acts 7:1). Stephen replied with a long discourse recounting events in the history of Israel (Acts 7:2-50). Then he said, "You stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears! You always resist the Holy Spirit; as your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who foretold the coming of the Just One, of whom you now have become the betrayers and murderers, who have received the law by the direction of angels and have not kept it.' When they heard these things they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed at him with their teeth. But he, being full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and said, 'Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!' Then they cried out with a loud voice, stopped their ears, and ran at him with one accord; and they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul" (Acts 7:51-58).
These authorities and religious leaders were apparently too proud to accept correction and admit they were wrong. They reacted emotionally, with rage, when they were told they were murderers. So they compounded their sin by murdering Stephen.
Both those who heard Peter and those who heard Stephen were "cut to the heart", but one group was sorrowful and repented and the other group went into a rage and murdered.
This can be a warning to us to expect to face persecution from many in the world before the end of this age comes. Right now, those in the world who do not want to hear our message can easily tune out and avoid hearing it. They will switch channels and avoid our TV program and avoid our magazines and booklets and websites. The gospel and the Ezekiel warning have yet to go out with so much power that people will be forced to listen. Perhaps one or two out a hundred, at most, among all Israel have heard our message in enough detail and power to be warned.
But I believe every indication in the Bible is that eventually, before the great tribulation begins, the true gospel and the Ezekiel warning will go out with so much power that people will not be able to avoid it. God wants the wicked to be warned (Ezekiel 3:17, Isaiah 58:1). They may be forced to listen to it, for they will not listen willingly. And they will become angry. As the Jewish elders, scribes, council, and high priest became angry with Stephen when he told them the truth, so many in the world will become angry with us for telling them the truth. As they murdered Stephen, so they will persecute us. We have to be mentally prepared for that, we need to draw close to God, and we need to make sure we have proved the truth and are well grounded in our faith so we can face the persecution without compromising with God's truth. "He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for My sake will find it" (Matthew 10:39). "And they overcame him [Satan] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, and they did not love their lives to the death" (Revelation 12:11).
"Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you" (Matthew 5:11-12). "These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world" (John 16:33).
"Remember the word that I said to you, 'A servant is not greater than his master.' If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you. If they kept My word, they will keep yours also" (John 15:20). "Yes, and all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution" (2 Timothy 3:12).
Interestingly, it may not just be those who are most diligent and zealous for preaching the gospel who will be persecuted, but all the Church of God, including those who do not preach the gospel.
But there is another lesson in these examples.
Even after repentance and conversion, we in the Church of God need to be teachable. We need to not react with anger when told we are wrong, but to look at the accusation with a humble and open mind, willing to examine ourselves and consider that the one who corrects us may be right. We need to have a mind that is open to acknowledging that we have been wrong and need to change. That doesn't mean we automatically accept any correction or accusation someone levels at us, because the one who tries to correct us may be mistaken. He or she may not have all the facts. Nevertheless, we should not automatically become angry when someone tells us we are wrong. We should not allow ourselves to have an attitude of pride that tries to protect our favorable self-image and therefore rejects any correction that tells us we are wrong and need to change. That is how the religious authorities reacted to Stephen and the message he gave them, but we should be different. We should be like the people who heard Peter speak on the day of Pentecost, who were "cut to the heart" when they learned of their responsibility for the death of the Messiah and asked, "what shall we do?".
We should certainly be teachable and willing to be corrected when we come into the truth, are baptized, and converted, but it is easy to lose that teachable attitude if we are not careful. It is easy to become complacent and self-satisfied over time. "So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth. Because you say, 'I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing'—and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked—" (Revelation 3:16-17).
It is a dangerous thing to lose our teachability. It sets us up for a big fall. It makes it harder for God to correct us gently, by the words and warnings of others, and forces God to deal with us harshly. "He who is often rebuked, and hardens his neck, will suddenly be destroyed, and that without remedy" (Proverbs 29:1).
We should view correction, not as an attack to hurt us or destroy us, but as a warning to help us. And even if the person correcting us does not have a right attitude and may really be trying to hurt us (and justify themselves), consider that God may be using that person to correct us. God's attitude is always to help us for our good even if the person He may use to correct us may have a bad attitude or may be correcting us in a hostile or irritating way.
Look at the example of Nineveh in the book of Jonah. Jonah warned them, and they accepted the correction and repented. And because they repented, God spared them. But did Jonah have a right attitude? Was he tactful? Was he even trying to help the Ninevites? Probably not, considering he did not want to deliver the message in the first place and was actually sorry that God spared them after they repented. Yet the Ninevites did not reject the correction because the person who offered the correction had a bad attitude. They accepted the correction and were saved from destruction. Had they become angry and resentful towards the message and rejected it because they didn't like the way Jonah talked to them, they would have been destroyed.
Jonah may indeed have been untactful in the way he corrected Nineveh. But God used him, an untactful person, to deliver the message, and while Jonah who delivered the message had a bad attitude, God who caused Jonah to deliver the message had a good attitude.
So God can even use an untactful, judgmental, harsh and hostile person with a bad attitude, to give us needed correction for our own good, just as He used Jonah to warn Nineveh. So let's not reject correction from someone just because they irritate us. They may not have a right attitude, but God may be using them to tell us something for our own good. It takes humility to accept correction from a harsh person, but that humility pays off in the long run for our good. "And whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted" (Matthew 23:12).
The examples of the people Stephen spoke to and the people Peter spoke to illustrate two reactions to correction. The religious authorities who heard Stephen reacted with pride, vanity, and anger, and they illustrate Satan's way of life and response to correction. The people who heard Peter reacted with humility and willingness to repent, and they illustrate God's way of life and response to correction.
Let's make sure we react with a humble, teachable attitude the next time someone offers us correction. The correction may be right or wrong, and we do not have to just unconditionally accept it and agree with it. But we should at least consider it with an open mind and ask ourselves, "Could I be wrong about this?" And we should not automatically become angry with anyone who corrects us to try to help us.
This is one more area where we need to fight our human nature and choose to follow where God's Holy Spirit leads us. This is one more area where we need to bring every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5).