Acts #25 (7:54 - 8:2)
The Book of Acts
The Martyrdom of Stephen
I find it very compelling that only a few months into the life of the early church, and with the death of Stephen, they have already conducted three funerals. Two of those came because of sin in the church and now comes the first Christian to be killed because of his faith and testimony.
We are first introduced to him as one of the men chosen to provide servant ministry in the church. He was a man of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom. He was a man who was full of faith. And because of that testimony, he, along with six other men, were chosen out of the thousands in the early church to minister to the church.
It turns out he was also a bold, courageous preacher who ends up being the first martyr. He is, because of his testimony, brought before the Jewish supreme court, the council, the Sanhedrin and asked to defend himself against the charges of blaspheming God, Moses, the law and the temple.
So beginning in verse 2 of chapter 7 adn extending all the way to verse 53, he provides this long drawn out answer, filled with Scriptural examples of his faith in God, his respect for their forefathers, his understanding of the law and the temple.
At the same time, however, he turns the tables on these Jewish leaders as he points out how their forefathers, time and time again, had rejected God. It was seen in their rejection of God's chosen son, in Joseph, their rejection of God's appointed deliverer in Moses, their blasphemy of God's law and temple through their continued disobedience and disregard.
So, he says, I’m not the blasphemer. You are the blasphemers. And he wraps up his sermon with this statement:
We don't have to wonder about how they reacted to his accusations of murdering the Son of God.
What strikes me from this text is the starkness of the contrast between a Spirit-filled man dying and a hate-filled crowd killing him. The conflict and the contrast is so extreme. And the irony is the real victims here are the murderers. Stephen wins!
In fact, the entire scene is full of contrasts. Those who accuse Stephen of blasphemy are the blasphemers. His face is shining while theirs must have been contorted with their hatred. He winds up the winner while they are doomed. .
And the contrast between their hatred and the serenity of Stephen is to apparent to miss! In fact, it is literally the difference between heaven and hell.
In fact, that's where Ii want to focus your attention for a few moments this evening.
First of all,
1. They were Full of Anger while He Was Full of the Spirit.
When he began his sermon, there was no question but that they were listening. He captures their attention by discussing their common faith and ancestry. So as he walked them through their own Scriptures, the Old Testament, I'm sure they listened with interest.
But as the point of his presentation began to become clear, their interest turned to anger and rage. And even as they charge him with blasphemy, he turns the charge around and directs it back at them. And that's what leads to the response we find there in verse 54.
Literally, in the Greek, they were sawn in half. They were ripped apart. And they become so angry they began gnashing their teeth at him, grinding their teeth like some wild beast. That's Luke's way of saying they are completely out of control with anger.
It is, in fact, descriptive of man in hell. Hell doesn’t produce remorse; it produces anger. It produces fury. That is why it’s forever. It’s forever, because they just keep sinning. Their fury against God never ends. Hell is full of people in a furious rage, furious because they are there, furious because of the influences that they followed, furious because of the decisions they made, furious at the one that consigned them there.
These people are outraged, and they forever are outraged. They are gnashing their teeth at this moment, in fury against the gospel preacher.
Stephen had indicted them as blasphemers and they retaliate with this hellish rage.
Stephen, in contrast to that, was full of the Spirit.
The same description we found of Stephen earlier in verses 3 and 5 of chapter 6, we see again here.
So what does it mean to be full of the Holy Spirit? It means to be under the control of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit comes as a comforter. He comes as a teacher. He comes as a source of power. He comes as a source of wisdom. And that's what's happening here. Whatever Stephen needed from God in that moment, he had through the Holy Spirit.
And notice, it’s a present tense reference. He, being full of the Holy Spirit. This was not some kind of momentary experience for Stephen. This wasn't an occasional experience that caused him to roll around in the floor and speak gibberish.
This is how he lived. This is who he is in Christ. This is the fullness of the Spirit that is characteristic of him all the time. He was a man who lived in a state of being yielded to the Holy Spirit’s power.
And while his audience has gone stark raving mad with anger, he remains calm, fully under control of the blessed Holy Spirit.
And by the way, we need to remember, this is to be normal practice of Christians. This is not unusual or out of the ordinary. In fact, read the testimonies of the martyrs of the faith, and you will not find a single instance where one of them died a screaming, hateful resentful death. Every story of martyrdom that I have ever read always depicts a calm, tranquil, supernatural peace and a divine strength.
It's what Peter talked about in 1 Peter 4, verse 14 where he says,
“If you are reproached for the name of Christ, you are blessed because the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you.”
Something happens in that hour of martyrdom that is a double portion of the Holy Spirit. Not only is the Holy Spirit living in every believer all the time, and not only are we walking in the Spirit, being filled with the Spirit as we yield to Him all the time, but there is a special display of grace and glory that comes on the martyr, that comes on the believer who is under severe threat of life and limb.
Stephen is already filled with the Spirit. But he is given a double portion of the Holy Spirit for the moment of his death. Grace and glory rests on him in the moment of his ultimate hour of trial.
So their is this vivid contrast between these JEwish leaders who are full of anger and rage, and Stephen who is full of the Spirit. They couldn't be more opposite.
The second set of contrasts is seen in
2. The Spiritual Blindness of the Sanhedrin and the Spittual Vision of Stephen.
Let's start with Stephen
I think it safe to say that to be filled with the Holy Spirit is to be preoccupied with heavenly things. It has to do with what Colossians 3 says about setting your affections on things above and not on things on the earth.
But there’s more here than that. Notice, Stephen gazes into heaven. That's the same thing the apostles were doing in chapter 1 when Jesus ascended. It's the very same language.
And here is Stephen gazing into heaven. It's as if his human vision takes him all the way into heaven. He is looking at the glory of God. He is able to see Jesus standing at the right hand of God.
It is beyond comprehension! He literally took his eyes off his circumstances and put them on heaven. He knew his danger. He knew there was no way his life would be spared. There no one to look to help him, to rescue him. There was not going to be a massive turning to Christ. He knows what's about to happen and where he’s headed. So he puts his eyes toward heaven.
And, incredibly, the Lord rewards him by pulling away the veil that separates this earth from heaven and with unhindered vision, he beholds the glory of God.
He saw what Adam and Eve saw in the garden when they walked and talked with God. He saw what Moses saw when he was taken up to the Mount and the glory of God was revealed to him. He saw what Isaiah saw in the vision of chapter 6 when he saw the Lord lifted high and lifted up on the throne. He saw what Ezekiel saw in chapter 1. He saw what Peter, James, and John saw on the Mount of Transfiguration. He saw what the apostle Paul saw when he was caught up to the third heaven. He saw what the apostle John saw in the visions on Patmos. He saw what very few ever saw. He saw a vision of the glory of God.
And not just the glory of God, but he saw Jesus Himself standing there at the right hand of God. Now while it might be overwhelming to take all that in, it shouldn't surprise to see where Jesus is. After all, He's right where He said He would be. He said He was going to the right hand of the Father.
That was His own promise. Matthew recorded it as did Luke also. In fact, peter talked about it on the day of Pentecost as a fulfillment of prophecy. The writers of the epistles say that Jesus took His place at the right hand of God. Paul says it. The writer of Hebrews says it again and again and again, that He was highly exalted and placed at God’s right hand. The seat of power and honor.
So it's not unusual to see Jesus at the right hand of God. That's as it should be. that is the place of honor and power and majesty. But what is surprising is that He's not seated, but standing. And now, the ascended Christ, typically pictured as seated, is now standing.
So what has made Him stand up? Why has He gotten up from the seat? It is because one of His servants is suffering and His care for one of His own grabs His attention. He gets up to help His own and He rises to welcome one of His own into heaven.
And the spiritual vision of Stephen allows him to face the moment of his death in an amazing way as God graciously relieves the horror of that moment by a letting him see what was awaiting him.
In fact, he couldn’t hold the wonder in!
It is that statement that unleashes the final explosion of fury. Why do those words so incite the Sanhedrin? It is because they had heard it all before.
Not too long ago, another prisoner who was charged with the same offense of blasphemy had stood before that same court and said the same thing. That other prisoner was none other than the Lord Jesus Christ.
It is recorded in Mark 14:61-62 where the high priest asks Jesus if He is the Messiah. Jesus answers by saying, “I am.” Then He said this: “And you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Almighty and coming with the clouds of heaven.”
Jesus had said He was going to heaven. And when He got there, He would be at the right hand of God. That was the final blasphemy that they would tolerate from Jesus. And for that, they murdered Him.
And now, in front of the same crowd, the same leaders, the same council, Stephen is standing in the same place and he is saying: I see into heaven and Jesus is there at the right hand of God. He’s making the very same claim that Jesus made. He’s showing the truth of the words of Jesus. He is seeing Him in heaven, at God’s right hand. Here is living testimony of Stephen that the Son of Man was where He claimed He was going.
And to their ears, this is the most blatant outrageous blasphemy that could ever be uttered. And, even while Stephen stands there looking at God, they are completely blind to God.
And in their blindness,
They didn’t want God’s truth. They didn’t want to know the truth. They didn't want to see it and they didn't want to hear it. All reason is gone. And in a mad run, they now make their move to kill Stephen.
So here is Stephen again, full of the Holy Spirit while they are full of rage. Here is Stephen, spiritually, he sees everything clearly, even all the way into heaven, and they are in a blindness.
There’s a third set of contrasts and the at is
3. The Contrasts Between Death and Life
They may have thought they were taking Stephen's life, but in reality, all they were doing was allowing him to live forever!
Their attention to detail is amazing! According to Leviticus 24, stoning was allowable for blasphemy and anyone who was stoned had to be stoned outside the city.
So, true to the stimulations of the law they’re going to stone him as a blasphemer and they’re going to do it outside the city.
But while the Law might have allowed them to stone a blasphemer, the Romans didn't. They had no right to kill anybody. But they set all that aside, got them some witnesses and stoned him.
Now since they were such rigid law keepers, I think it safe to assume they followed what the law prescribed. Deuteronomy 17:7 says the hand of the witnesses shall be first upon him to put him to death. And afterward, the hand of the people. So, if they’re going to stone someone for blasphemy, the first stones are going to be thrown by the witnesses who give first-hand testimony to the blasphemy.
According to Jewish law, the drop from the stoning place was twice the height of a man. One of the witnesses pushes the criminal off from behind. So, he falls face forward. Then he is to be turned on his back to see if he's still alive. If he dies from the fall, that is sufficient. If not, the second witness takes a large stone and drops it on his heart. If this caused death, it is sufficient. If not, he is stoned by all the congregation of Israel.
Well obviously, the push didn’t kill Stephen, and the stone by the second witness didn’t kill him. Because, verse 59 says, “they went on stoning Stephen.”
All they have in mind is death. but all he had in mind was life.
Essentially, that’s what Christ said. On the cross, He commended His spirit to God. “Into Your hands I commend My spirit.” He said what his Lord said.
When a believer dies, the spirit, the real person, goes to the presence of the Lord. The body, into the grave, awaiting the resurrection at the rapture, when the Lord comes for His own. Absent from the body; present with the Lord. In heaven are all the spirits of just men made perfect, the book of Hebrews says. The resurrection is yet to come in the future. They had death on their minds. He had life on his mind.
There’s one final contrast at the end. It’s
4. The Contrast Between Hate and Love
The hate is seen all the way through in the fury of those stoning him. This humblest of men, sent by God to preach salvation to Israel, all they wanted to do was kill him. But in the middle of this blast of hate, we see the beauty of love.
This is really where we see the real man named Stephen. While their crushing his life with rocks, he pulls himself up into a kneeling position to pray. So I wonder what he will pray for.
Is he going to pray for deliverance? Is he going to ask for fire to fall from heaven and kill them? No. He prays for forgiveness for them.
This too, is like his Lord Who prayed, "Father, lay not this sin to their charge."
One of the heroes of the Scottish Reformation history was George Wishart, who died as a martyr. At the time of hsi execution, the executioner hesitated because George Wishart was such a gracious man. Wishart, according to his biographer, came over to the executioner, kissed him and said, “Here is a token that I forgive you,” and went to his death.
That’s how Christian martyrs die: full of love.
The death of Stephen had a massive impact in that it launched the persecution of the church as we see in chapter 8, verse 1.
But more than that, it affected a young man named Saul, who never forgot it, never forgot that day, never forgot that testimony. In fact, when he gave his own testimony to Timothy, Paul said this: “I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me because he considered me faithful, putting me into ministry, even though I was formerly a blasphemer and a persecutor, and a violent aggressor. Yet, I was shown mercy because I acted ignorantly in unbelief.
And the grace of our Lord was more than abundant with the faith and love which are found in Christ Jesus. It is a trustworthy statement deserving full acceptance that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all.”
Never been a worse sinner than me. I think that day set Paul, first of all, on a course of persecution until the Damascus Road when the Lord got a hold of his life, and he looked back and saw the whole story of Stephen in a completely different way.
Augustin, the early church father, said, “The church owes Paul.
But the truth is he church owes Stephen for the prayer for Paul when he said, "Lord, do not charge them with this sin."
In so many words, he was asking God to forgive them. And the Lord forgave one named Saul. Stephen, in a sense, was expendable, for Saul. And Paul was expendable for the world.