The Lord's Day Evening
March 12, 2006
“The Death of a Christian”
The Reverend Dr. Guy P. Waters
If you have your Bibles with you this evening, please turn open to Acts, chapter seven. If you’re following along in the pew Bible, please turn to page 1304. Our Scripture reading this evening comes to us from Acts, chapter 7. We’ll be beginning at the fifty-fourth verse and continuing to the end of the chapter at verse sixty. Again, our Scripture reading this evening is Acts 7:54-60. Before we read it, let's ask God's blessing on it. Let's pray.
Our great God and our heavenly Father, we do thank You for Your word. Open now our eyes that we might behold wonderful things in Your law, for we ask this in Christ's name. Amen.
Hear now the word of God:
“Now when they heard this, they were cut to the quick, and they began gnashing their teeth at him. But being full of the Holy Spirit, he gazed intently into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God; and he said, ‘Behold, I see the heavens opened up and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.’ But they cried out with a loud voice, and covered their ears, and they rushed upon him with one impulse. And when they had driven him out of the city, they began stoning him, and the witnesses laid aside their robes at the feet of a young man named Saul. And they went on stoning Stephen as he called upon the Lord and said, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!’ And falling on his knees, he cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them!’ And having said this, he fell asleep.”
Thus far God's word.
I. A Christian must be prepared to die.
As we study the Book of Acts we learn a lot about the Christian life. We learn a lot about the beginnings of the Christian life, its progress, its maturity. In our Scripture this evening we see what death looks like to the Christian. We see what Christian death looks like, what it is for a believer to meet his Lord and Savior in the hour of death.
Now, to be sure, this is a martyrdom, and perhaps few of us are expecting such an end. We will see many important things about suffering and trial in this passage. What we find in our Scripture tonight, we find principles. We find the Scripture teaching us how to prepare to die. All of us can be sure that, barring the Lord's return in our lifetime, it's God's will that we would die. How would we approach that day?
And as we think about how to die, as we think about how to prepare for that moment of death, then we’ll see that as the Scripture shows us, to learn how to die is to learn how to live. It is in preparing for death that we live the Christian life, and so I want us to see four things this evening, and the first is this: That every Christian must be prepared to die. Every Christian must be prepared to die.
Now as we read along in the Book of Acts, we see that Stephen is a faithful Christian. We met him in Acts 6. He is described there in verse 5 as “...a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit.” Now we know, having read the Book of Acts and Acts 5, that not every person that professes the faith is sincere. We've seen Ananias and Sapphira die because they have lied to the Holy Spirit, but Stephen will die as he is found faithful to the Lord Jesus Christ.
We know that Stephen is a man, a professing Christian, who is faithful in his duty. We are told in Acts 6 that “...full of grace and power, he was performing great wonders and signs among the people.” In verse 10, his enemies “...were unable to cope with the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking.” And we find Stephen faithful in his duty, and as he is faithful in his duty he is persecuted, and he is opposed for the gospel's sake. And we read at the end of chapter 6 that his enemies convened the Sanhedrin. They bring up charges. They call up false witnesses.
And Stephen, in his marvelous sermon in the first 53 verses of this chapter, speaks the truth to them. He boldly speaks the truth. He shows them how Israel had been faithless, rebelled against God, and he draws out God's patience and forbearance towards them. So we see Stephen at every point where he's recorded for us in Scripture emerging as a Christian who's about his duty, a Christian who's willing to face all manner of opposition for the truth's sake. He doesn't seek out trouble, but when providence brings it before him, he stands up and he does his duty as a Christian, and the outcome is death. Stephen dies.
Now, Stephen himself said in verse 52 of this chapter to these men before him, “Which one of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? They killed those who had previously announced the coming of the Righteous One, whose betrayers and murders you have now become....” Paul would later say to Timothy, “All who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” So Stephen is prepared to lay down his life as a disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ. He's willing to follow in the footsteps of his master.
Now as you think about this for a moment this evening, it is unlikely that here in Jackson we will be called to lay down our lives in this city for the sake of the profession of the truth, and yet we know that profession of the truth, to speak the truth, to live the truth, will bring opposition, and perhaps even opposition unto death. But this raises two practical questions for your Christianity this evening. The first is this: Do you think of the Christian life in terms of warfare and struggle? Is that how you think of the Christian life this evening?
Now, you can go to any number of books and television shows that will tell you that the Christian life is a way to make living in this world a whole lot easier, and a whole lot more comfortable, and a whole lot more prosperous. Now to be sure, the apostle says godliness has profit for this life, but not in that way. Not in the way that these teachers are presenting it in many books and in the media. The Scripture says that the Christian life is one of warfare. We are to gird ourselves with the armor of God. Not just ministers, not just elders, but all Christians put on the armor of God. “Be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might,” the apostle says. And we think of Isaac Watts’ great question:
“Am I a soldier of the cross, a follower of the Lamb?
And shall I fear to own His cause, or blush to speak His name?
Must I be carried to the skies on flowery beds of ease,
While others fought to win the prize and sailed through bloody seas?”
The Christian life is one of warfare and struggle. Do you see it that way tonight, Christian?
And the second question for us this evening is this: Are you prepared to suffer loss for the sake of Christ's name? Now the Scripture's clear at this point that those who profess to know and to love Jesus Christ must be prepared to give up all things for Him, even to the laying down of our lives. You may be called to give up opportunities; you may be called to give up friendships or a reputation, for the sake of standing before those who oppose you as you profess your faithfulness to the Lord Jesus Christ.
How is a Christian to bear up under this? Well, we read just a couple of chapters earlier in Acts 5, “The apostles went on their way, having been brought before the Council, rejoicing that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for His name.” And Peter will go on to write, “If you are reviled for the name of Christ you are blessed, because the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you.” And so if God would call you, Christian, to sacrifice, to part with anything for His sake, do you do it? Do you do that cheerfully? Do you look to that loss as cause for rejoicing, as evidence that you belong to Jesus Christ?
Well, that's the first thing that we see: That a faithful Christian must be prepared to die.
II. But we see a second thing, and that is that Christians at death may face extraordinary temptations.
Christians at death may face extraordinary temptations. I think of the circumstances of Stephen's death. He's facing outright hostility. He's facing the hatred of his countrymen. We’re told they were “gnashing their teeth at him.” They are blind with rage; they rush at him. We’re told in verse 57 “...they cried out with a loud voice, they covered their ears, and they rushed at him with one impulse.” In verse 58, they throw him out of the city and they begin stoning him.
Think for a moment of temptations that might have presented themselves to Stephen. He might have been tempted to despair. Here were his own kinsmen putting him to death; putting him to death no less as one on whom the curse of God rested, dragging him out of the city and stoning him, in keeping with their understanding of how Leviticus 24:14-16 should be applied. He might have been tempted to think that God had given him over, had abandoned him.
He might have been tempted to bitterness. Here's a man of extraordinary gifts, here's a man of extraordinary graces in the church. He was useful. He was useful in the kingdom. He had been used for others’ good, and this is his end. He might have been tempted to vengeance. He's a man whose life is being unjustly taken. He didn't have the opportunity to appeal. He might have been tempted to vengeance to his persecutors.
Now as we think of these and perhaps other temptations that were set before Stephen, we're reminded that at the hour of death the devil and the world may run hard upon a Christian, to deprive them of the hope and of the comfort of the Savior. We might think in this connection of Pilgrim's Progress, the great tale of the Christian life by John Bunyan. We might think of Christian and Hopeful at a River preparing to die, a River they have to cross to enter into the Gate. And you might remember that Christian begins to despair, and his fellow pilgrim, Hopeful, begins to encourage him from the Scripture; and so Christian, so encouraged, will cross that River. And what we see here this evening in our Scripture is God walking with Stephen through the valley of the shadow of death.
How does God support and strengthen Stephen at this time? Well, that brings us to our next concern. We see in verse 55, Stephen is “full of the Holy Spirit.” Stephen is a man who has been full of the Holy Spirit as a Christian, as an officer of the church. He has been given by the Spirit of God gifts and graces. The Spirit has taken His residence in Stephen, who is more and more being conformed after the image of Christ. But you see, what keeps Stephen from tottering over the edge in despair, what allows Stephen to set his sights on his heavenly hope is not Stephen: it's God. To be sure, Stephen looks, but he's supported and he's strengthened by God.
And what does God do? He lifts Stephen's gaze heavenward, doesn't He? He lifts his gaze up to the exalted Lord Jesus Christ, and you see that in the verse following:
“But being full of the holy Spirit, he gazed intently into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God; and he said, ‘Behold, I see the heavens opened up and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.’”
This is how we know that Stephen is full of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of God directs his mind on the Lord Jesus Christ. Stephen directs his gaze on the Lord Jesus Christ.
Let's think about his for a moment. Notice that his gaze is lifted heavenward. Stephen's gaze is lifted heavenward. Stephen is planted in the midst of extraordinary trial, troubles, circumstances, and all of these could have consumed his mind. But Stephen's mind is set not on his persecutors, but on his Lord. Stephen's mind is not looking around him. Stephen's mind is looking upward at the Lord Jesus Christ. And you see, these trials, these are the occasion for him to look upward. And you see Stephen showing us in the flesh what we see throughout the Scripture. How often do we see in the Psalms the psalmist coming before God with a candid statement of his trials and his difficulties and his fears, and yet how often do we see the psalmist thinking on who God is, and thinking on what He has done for His people. And though his circumstances may not have changed, the psalmist exudes confidence; not in himself, not in his circumstances, but in his God and in His goodness to him. And so Stephen's gaze is turned heavenward.
Christian, how important this is whether we're at the hour of death or whether we're facing trials and difficulties that God in His providence brings for us. How important it is to think on this truth. It is so tempting in the midst of trial to be fixed on what's before us, to become anxious, to become fearful, to despair. It may be even now there are some here who are just in this situation, who find it difficult, who are laboring to focus on the word of God because of just such trials, because of something that happened this week or something you’re facing in the week to come. And this Scripture shows us where to gain a Christian confidence in the hour of trial. It comes not by fixing our eyes more keenly on your trials. It comes through the word of God, through knowing, having a sense of who God is, who He is to His people, because it's in the word alone that we know who Jesus Christ is and His mercies to us. We see that Stephen's gaze is set heavenward.
But you see also that Stephen's gaze is focused on the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. He declares this in verse 56.
Now, how does a believing sight of the Lord Jesus Christ strengthen Stephen at this time? Well, notice a couple of things. He sees Jesus at the right hand of God. He's at the right hand of God. Now, the Scripture says that Jesus Christ's being at the right hand of God means that He has made purification for our sins. He has offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, and so in thinking on Jesus Christ at the right hand of God there is a reminder that the work of Jesus Christ in His humiliation was accomplished: His obedience, His sufferings, His death for His own was accomplished. He knew, was reminded afresh, that Jesus Christ the God-man was exalted to the highest favor with God the Father, with all fullness of joy and glory and power over all things in heaven and on earth, and so Stephen is reminded afresh that the Father has received and accepted that work that the Son did, that work that He gave the Son to do. And so Stephen, mindful of this truth, could cast his soul in full confidence on the Lord Jesus Christ. He knows there will be no disappointment to lean and to rest on Jesus Christ, because He is exalted.
Now, think how differently this is from our everyday hopes and our everyday desires. I’ll share with you one of mine. I'm hopeful that the Duke men's basketball team is going to go all the way in the tournament! Now, if you've been following the last couple of weeks, if you’re a fan, your hopes have been riding up and down, and up and down — and it's like that with everything in this life, isn't it? Everything within this world? And yet, how different...how different is our hope in Jesus Christ. Our hope is in heaven. Its foundation is solid. It's unchanging. It's not touched by this world's circumstances. It's imperishable, it's undefiled. It will not fade away. And so Stephen, fixing his eyes on the Lord Jesus Christ, sees afresh his hope, his confidence, and he can cast himself on it.
But you see as well, Jesus is standing at the right hand of God (verse 55). Jesus Christ is a living, active Mediator between God and His own.
Now, sometimes the Scripture speaks of Jesus as standing, sometimes it speaks of Him as sitting. Most often, sitting; here, standing. And the point is clear enough. Jesus is living and active for his people, and so Stephen, thinking on Jesus Christ standing at the right hand of God...he knows that his Savior is near to him. He's interceding for him. He's taking interest in him, and no enemy can change that fact that He reigns, and Christ will deal with His enemies in due time.
And Christian, as we think about Stephen's gaze on the Lord Jesus Christ, we can't expect such a vision to be given to us, but we have Jesus Christ spoken of in the word of God, and by faith and the grace of God in that word, we can lay hold of Christ as Stephen looked to Him for comfort and assurance. We can know the reality of Christ's work as our Mediator. And you see how practical this point is, that we can have a renewed assurance as we meditate on the Scripture, a renewed confidence meditating on the finished work of Jesus Christ, who has taken His seat at the right hand of God the Father. We think of Christ standing at the right hand of the Father, and meditating on that truth, thinking on His intercession, thinking on His drawing near to those who look to Him, thinking on the fact that He reigns...and you see, meditating on Jesus Christ and His work as we read about it in the Scripture will help us to do just that, will help us to be established on these truths.
You see, this is why your study of the Scripture, why your sitting under preaching, why your learning and rehearsing and chewing on the Catechisms are so important: because these are opportunities to set your mind on things above. This is your occasion to reflect and to meditate on Jesus Christ and all His offices to the believer. So as you prepare for trial, as you approach the hour of death whenever in God's providence that may be, if you would desire to be established in your time, Christian, fill your mind with these truths and rehears them; pray through them, ask that God would bless them to your good.
III. Christians, at the hour of death and in trial, should be about the work of prayer.
The last thing I want us to see tonight is that Christians, at the hour of death and in trial, should be about the work of prayer. Now, how fitting it is that Stephen's poised to enter into further communion with Christ in glory. He's about this work now, isn't he?
We see two prayers. He gives a prayer for himself (verse 59), “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And you see Stephen's confidence in the exalted Lord Jesus Christ exudes in this prayer that He would receive him, that He would receive his soul immediately into His presence at the hour of his death. And you see, this is Stephen's great concern, isn't it? That he would be in the arms of his Redeemer. And as you think, and as you meditate, and as you pray through this Scripture as you would prepare for the hour of trial, the hour of death, fix your minds on the Lord Jesus Christ who receives sinners to Himself. And may it never be that your comfort and your hope, either now or as you approach death, would be anything that you've accomplished — your families, your reputation. May it only be the Lord Jesus Christ.
But you see something else, you see another prayer. Stephen prays for his enemies (verse 60): “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” What a remarkable act of love! Here's Stephen, redeemed by the blood of the Lamb, and he appeals to Christ to extend mercy to his enemies. He prays that they would be spared the judgment that would surely come upon them if they remained impenitent and in their sins.
Now, Stephen dies. But think for a moment...think for a moment on the people who are before him. Scripture tells us of one. Look in verse 58. There's a young man named Saul present in that company. And as you move on in the Book of Acts, you know that God converts Saul and uses him in a way that few Christians have been used since the resurrection of Christ.
Now, Stephen didn't live on this earth to see the conversion of Saul, and yet we know that Stephen must rejoice in glory that God has brought this one from darkness into His marvelous light. Surely Stephen rejoices to see that God brought faith and repentance to Saul. You and I ought to pause and think on that prayer, and to be encouraged to pray it in trial or the hour of death. Let's turn the focus of our prayers on our Savior. We would read the word aright. We would learn of Him, learn of Him as our Prophet, Priest, and King. We would know that.
Then we ought to pray and focus on our Savior, pray for the good of our souls, pray for the souls even of our enemies. And Christian, as you would do so, let that be a joy, that to continue instant in this great work of prayer that you would enter into glory, marveling that by God's mercies in Christ we would continue to commune with the Savior who has loved us and died for us.
Let us pray.
Our God and our Father, we do thank You for Your word. We thank You for the way in which it speaks so clearly and so fully of the person and the work of the Lord Jesus Christ. We thank You that You would have our eyes directed on Him. We pray as we face trials and temptations and difficulties of many sorts, as we would prepare to approach the hour of death, grant us grace that our eyes would be fixed on the Savior, that we would come to Him. And grant that our prayers might be fixed on Him as we would pray for our good, and as we would pray for mercy for others. And we ask this in Christ's name. Amen.
Please rise for the benediction, after which we’ll have our hymn of response.
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.
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