Christianity at Its Highest Level

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The death of Zechariah makes an interesting contrast with that of Stephen. Both were stoned, but there is a marked difference in their dying prayers.  Second Chronicles 24:21–22 describes Zechariah’s martyrdom:

They conspired against him, and by command of the king they stoned him with stones in the court of the house of the Lord. Thus Joash the king did not remember the kindness that Jehoiada, Zechariah’s father, had shown him, but killed his son. And when he was dying, he said, “May the Lord see and avenge!”

Acts 7:59–60 records the last words of Stephen: “As they were stoning Stephen, he called out, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.’ And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’ And when he had said this, he fell asleep.”

We cannot fault Zechariah for praying for vengeance. He recognized, of course, that vengeance belongs to God, and he properly left the matter with God. His praying this way should by no means be regarded as dishonorable.

In fact, Revelation 6:10 gives us a look behind the curtains of the cosmic drama. There we learn that the perpetual cry of the martyrs of all ages is “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?”

There’s certainly no sin in praying for justice. God will avenge His people, and when His vengeance is finally administered, no one will be able to complain that it is unjust. In fact, we will simply marvel at the longsuffering of God that restrained His wrath for so long.

But for now, in the bright light of the new covenant, while the gospel is being proclaimed to the world, there’s a higher good than vengeance to plead for: forgiveness for and reconciliation with those who persecute us. Jesus said, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:27–28). Stephen obviously got the message.

What about justice? It is natural—and even right—to want to see justice fulfilled and divine vengeance administered. But for the Christian, there is a much higher priority. As Christians, we should be obsessed with forgiveness, not vengeance.

Unforgiveness is a toxin. It poisons the heart and mind with bitterness, distorting one’s whole perspective on life. Anger, resentment, and sorrow begin to overshadow and overwhelm the unforgiving person—a kind of soul-pollution that inflames evil appetites and evil emotions.

Forgiveness is the only antidote. To forgive is a healthy, wholesome, virtuous, liberating act. It unleashes joy. It brings peace. It washes the slate clean. It sets all the highest virtues of love in motion.

In a sense, forgiveness is Christianity at its highest level.

First published in Tabletalk Magazine, an outreach of Ligonier. For permissions, view our Copyright Policy.