September 20, 2006
To the Ends of
"The First Christian Martyr”
Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas
Now let's go to Acts 7. We’re going to pick up the story at verse 54, and read through into chapter eight and verse one. If you think you have problems, then listen to this. Before we read this passage together, let's pray.
Father, again we bow in Your presence. We need Your blessing. Open our eyes and hearts, that we might behold wondrous things in Your Law. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.
“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.’ And they cried out with a loud voice, and covered their ears, and rushed at him with one impulse. 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 on the Lord and said, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!’ Then falling on his knees, he cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them!’ Having said this, he fell asleep. Saul was in hearty agreement with putting him to death.”
Amen. May God bless to us the reading of His holy and inerrant word.
One of the questions that is of some interest to ask as we traverse through the Book of Acts and come to this stage is the relationship of the church to its Jewish roots. The church at this point in history is still a branch of Judaism. Christians are still benefiting from some of the privileges that Judaism enjoyed under the Greco-Roman Empire. Rome made a distinction between what it called religio and superstitio. Religio was the religion of the state. It required you to offer offerings at various places in your home and at state functions, a bit like you and I might witness unbelievers at a state function bowing in prayer and repeating the Lord's Prayer. Rome expected that. Rome demanded that. And, Rome, being polytheistic and syncretistic, as the Empire expanded it amalgamated into its cultus various gods. The only religion that was given any exception whatsoever was Judaism. Judaism was fiercely monotheistic. It wasn't about to bow at the gods of Rome. But a pact had been made with Judaism, going back to the time of Judas Maccabeus, that when Judas Maccabee asked for Rome's protection from the Seleucid monarch, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, Rome complied; and the Jews helped Rome in the military, and Rome gave Judaism some space. The Jews were a difficult people to handle, then as now. (No offense meant, but it's true.) And in the mass of politics and geography that was all things Rome, it was easier to give this concession to the Jews, and they sheltered under what was called the religio licita [a tolerated religion]
Superstitio was something entirely different: it was your private faith, and your private faith was fine, so long as it remained private and didn't interfere in the religio. So long as you went and bowed at the feet of Rome, at her gods, and gave homage especially to Jupiter, you could have all the superstitio you wanted. But if it caused harm, as certain practices in the worship of Dionysus, for example, had magical rites, then it was outlawed. And in the case of Christianity, when it refused to bow at the feet of Rome, it too would be outlawed. And Stephen here is putting Christianity at tremendous risk.
Now this is a turning point, and we will see in the days to come how the church is fearful of the consequences. The church will be in turmoil for a short while as it comes to terms with the fact that it is no longer a branch of Judaism, and is something entirely distinct.
Stephen is giving a response, you remember, to the charges that have been made against him: one against Moses and one against the temple. And he's finished his extraordinary sermon, and charged his accusers with being stiff-necked and sinners to the core.
Alexander Whyte, nineteenth century Scottish preacher at Edinburgh, wrote a wonderful book on Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress on the characters of Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. He also wrote a fairly large treatment of characters from the Bible, Old Testament and New Testament, and on Stephen he says that Stephen far outstripped even such pillars of apostles such as Peter and James and John; and yet, God is going to take him away. And in the account of Stephen's martyrdom, I want us to see a number of things.
1. I want us to see first of all the contrast — staggering, staggering contrast — in verses 54 and 55.
Luke describes this mob — and that's what it is, it's a mob. Forgive the term...it's a lynching mob. Forgive the term. These accusers have now become hysterical, and they have one thing on their mind, and they’re filled with rage, and Luke describes in verse 54 how they ground their teeth at him. They’re irrational, they’re hot with anger.
And then, in absolute contrast, you've got the serenity, and peace, and the angelic form of Stephen. It's a deliberate contrast. You've got these men — and perhaps women — shouting in enmity against Stephen, and you've got Stephen raising his voice in a prayer of forgiveness for his enemies. You've got these men, and they’re full of hatred: and you've got [Stephen], who's full of the Holy Spirit. And Luke seems to be drawing a contrast. This is what Christianity is. This is what Christianity is; this is what the gospel does. It sets you apart from the world, so that Stephen is like a bright shining light in a dark place. You've got these men, and they’re like prowling animals; and you've got Stephen, and he's like an angel in the midst of something horrid and dirty. There's this contrast, first of all.
And Dr. Lloyd-Jones, bless his cotton socks, preached 38 sermons on Acts 7. I haven't read all 38 of them, but I've glimpsed some of them. (Thirty-eight sermons–almost as good as Ligon!) But here he says this is what Christianity is. It's a seraphic moment in his sermon. He said this is what Christianity is: When you look at Stephen, you listen to Stephen in the midst of this angry mob–this is what the gospel does: it transforms. It makes you altogether different from all of those around you.
2. The Holy Spirit comforts.
The second thing I want us to see is Luke's reference to the Holy Spirit. Luke at times will use this expression: “the fullness...”; “they were filled with the Spirit...”; or, “full of the Spirit.” Sometimes it's a reference to something that is an ongoing condition. When, for example, the seven were chosen, including Stephen, they are described as being “full of the Holy Spirit.” That's what they were. It was their condition. They were filled with the Holy Spirit.
But sometimes Luke, as for example in Acts 4 in the case of Peter before he preaches the sermon, and in the case of the crowd after he has preached the sermon, he uses the expression “they were filled with the Holy Spirit” not as a description of something that's an ongoing condition, but something that is distinctive: that the Spirit comes again in a crisis, in a moment of need, and fills them and energizes them, and equips them for battle and empowers them to be men and women of God in a moment of crisis. And it seems that that's what Luke intends here, that in this moment the Spirit came and filled him.
And Luke is alluding to Part I of his writings. He's alluding to the Gospel, which is...when Luke describes Jesus in the temptation narratives in the wilderness, that's how Luke 4:1 begins: Jesus going out to meet the devil in the wilderness, and he was driven there by the Spirit. He was filled with the Spirit; and Luke is drawing a parallel here, because he's been drawing this parallel all along. This angry crowd, this violent crowd who want him killed, and the prayer of forgiveness on the lips of Stephen, and a number of other features. He's drawing a parallel between the death of Jesus and the death of Stephen, and the Spirit has filled him.
And some of you are facing trials and difficulties, and some of you may be facing death, and the Spirit will help you. The representative agent of Jesus will help you; the paraclete, the Comforter will come and lift you, and draw you into the arms of Jesus and give you courage, and give you words to speak.
It's extraordinary. Back in chapter 21 and at verse 15 in an apocalyptic passage, Jesus says to His disciples when trouble will come, settle it therefore in your minds not, He says, to meditate before on how to answer, but “I will give you a mouth of wisdom which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict.” And God has given to Stephen in the hour of his need the mouth of wisdom that none of his adversaries can contradict.
3. Stephen's vision of Jesus
The third thing I want us to see is what Stephen saw. He saw amidst the turmoil, as this angry mob have now perhaps lifted him...hoisted him and driven him out of the city, outside the walls of Jerusalem, with the intention of executing him and putting him to death. And they have begun to lift up stones and hurl them in the direction of Stephen. I've been trying to imagine what that would have been like. I can't do it. As blows perhaps hit your body, but the fatal ones would be the ones that would hit your head. As the pain, now, and blood pouring down your face, having broken perhaps various bones already in your body; and Stephen is perhaps now slumped on the ground, but his head is upwards and he sees heaven open; and he sees, as Moses did in the desert, and as Abraham did in Mesopotamia, as Stephen's already cited in Acts 7, he sees the glory of God. He sees the glory. He sees a vision of the greatness, of the majesty of God. His vision is filled with God. God fills his vision with Himself, and he sees Jesus. And he sees Jesus standing at the right hand of God.
Now that is a curious statement. Curious because in chapter 1 and chapter 4, and I think chapter 8 and again, I think, in chapter 10 of Hebrews, we have references to Jesus at the right hand of God, but He is sitting. The Book of Hebrews citing, of course, Psalm 110, the most important Psalm in the time of the early church: “Ask of Me, and I will give you the uttermost parts of the world for your inheritance.” And as a sign of the finished aspect of Jesus’ work and the triumph of His rule and reign over His enemies, He is sitting as any monarch would, on a throne. And the sight of the glory, and the sight of the majesty, is the sight of One who is sitting, having accomplished great things. And here He is standing.
I like to think that perhaps He is standing indignation at the horror of what is happening to one of His own; that He sees Stephen inexorably drawing near to Him, and He stands in His glory to receive him; that as Stephen not only looks through that open door into heaven, but as his soul will pass through that door, there to greet him, standing with arms outstretched, is his Savior and his Lord; and to wrap His arms around him and to say, “Well, done, Stephen, My good and faithful servant, and I love you.”
It's the Son of Man that he sees standing–a phrase of course drawn from Daniel 7–again, of huge significance. In the midst of a passage that speaks of the triumph of the Son of Man, we sometimes think of a Son of Man as descriptive of Jesus’ humanity, and the Son of God as the description of Jesus’ deity; but that would be a mistake, because the Son of Man figure in the Book of Daniel is One who rules and reigns and conquers over kingdoms and His enemies, and triumphs. And Stephen is saying, do you see, whatever may be happening to me, whatever may be happening to my body, whatever ravages of the consequences of the fall may be happening in this world, I see another world; and it's as real, and in some ways more real, than this one. And I see the Son of Man. I see my Savior. I see my Lord, and I see my Conqueror, and I see my King, and He's ready to meet me.
4. Stephen's comfort.
And a fourth thing: As Luke describes it in verse 59, as life ebbs away, and as clear as a bell, with a consciousness that is fixed on the glory of his Savior, as he sees Him standing before him, he utters these words: “Receive my spirit.” Here is testimony of what happens after death. What happens in the first second after death? When the body expires, when the heart gives way, when the brain waves cease in your brain...however you define mortal fleshly death, what happens in the next second? “Our souls do immediately pass into glory.” Our spirits go immediately into the presence of Jesus. And here is Stephen in full assurance of what death means for a Christian.
You know what John Wesley used to say about eighteenth century Methodists? That “they died well.” I love that. They died well. They knew how to die. And you know, members of First Presbyterian Church, we want to be able that the world would say that about us: that we know how to die, and to die well, and to die full of faith, and to die full of assurance.
“I fear no foe, with Thee at hand to bless:
Ills have no weight, nor tears no bitterness.
Where is death's sting? where, grave, thy victory?
I triumph still, if Thou abide with me.”
“What can separate us from the love of God which is in Jesus Christ our Lord? Shall tribulation or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril or sword? Nay, in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us.”
Do you notice the words that he uses in verse 59? “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” I think Luke loved that. I think he loved that, because when Luke wrote the Gospel and similar words were said, you remember, of Jesus on the cross. What did Jesus say on the cross? “Father, receive My spirit!” And Stephen says, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” a testimony, do you see, and a consciousness of Stephen that the Father and the Lord Jesus are one and the same God to whom he is coming.
Oh, there's an issue about the death by stoning. How could the Jews do it? They weren't allowed to execute Jesus, as John makes clear in John 18. But perhaps by now (and we've moved on maybe three or four years now from the time of the execution of Jesus) Pilate is perhaps, as was wont in his latter days, in his palace at Caesarea and away from Jerusalem, and his days were numbered. And the last thing Pilate would want to do would be send a report to Rome saying there was trouble amongst the Jews. By the time Rome would hear about it, this was a fait accompli anyway.
5. Stephen's prayer of forgiveness.
And there's one more thing, a fifth thing: the prayer of forgiveness. Notice what Stephen says. “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” It's a prayer, not a statement.
Stephen doesn't say ‘I forgive you.’ He could have said that, but that's not what he says. He prays to the Lord Jesus that He might extend His forgiveness to His enemies, because that forgiveness will be on the other side of their repentance and their exercise of faith. And it wasn't a prayer that was in vain, because as Luke records for us, “They laid their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul.” Saul of Tarsus, who consents to the death of Stephen; who, as Acts 26 seems to indicate, is already a member of the Sanhedrin. And there at the feet of Stephen is the man whom Jesus will draw to Himself like a brand snatched from the burning, in answer to Stephen's prayer–the prayer of a dying man.
And do you notice how Luke describes his death? It's such a beautiful way. This man is bleeding and brutalized and tortured, and his bones are broken, and his skull is probably half open, blood is pouring forth and his life is ebbing away. It's horrible! And what does Luke say? “He fell asleep.” Isn't that a beautiful thing? That death is like that, even in its most brutal form, it's like falling asleep. It's like shutting your eyes and going asleep...not into unconsciousness...it's just the peacefulness of it. It's just the assurance of it.
Tertullian of Carthage, North Africa, would one day write a statement that the church will never forget, I suppose: that “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” And a little seed was sown here. God took Stephen away. If Alexander Whyte is correct in his assessment of Stephen, that he was greater than Peter and James and John, what usefulness Stephen might have had in the church, if God hadn't taken him away - if God hadn't purposed for Stephen to be the seed and the catalyst through which the church would grow; because the church would now have to make decisions as a consequence of what Stephen had done, and stand on its own two feet; and they would have to answer the question, ‘Shall I shelter under the shade of Judaism and perhaps compromise here, and compromise there? Or will I stand and be counted, and sing
“Who is on the Lord's side? Savior, we are thine!”
We sang than hymn tonight filled with roast beef and unbelief perhaps, but I want you to sing it again in your hearts, and only if you mean it. We are on the Lord's side–even if it kills us.
Do you know the kinds of things you and I complain about? That we've had such a hard day (and I've had a hard day)...and they are so trivial. They are so inconsequential, before the face of this man, Stephen, who gives his life for his Savior in obedience, counting it an honor and a privilege; and he falls asleep, and Jesus is there to hold him and draw him to Himself.
Well, my time is gone. I was going to read you the wonderful story of Polycarp. Maybe some other time. A wonderful aged bishop who met the flames of fire confessing something very similar to what Stephen is confessing here. Let's pray together.
Father, we can read and study and understand in an objective way what this story is all about, but we want it to move us and to have its way with us because we are such self-centered people. And we pray for a spirit of Stephen, and a spirit of Christ, that we might count it our very aim in life to seek first the kingdom of God and the righteousness that belongs to it, whatever the cost. Hear us, Lord, forgive us...forgive us our sins for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Please stand, receive the Lord's benediction.
Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.
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