To the End of the Earth: The First Christian Martyr

Sermon by Derek Thomas on September 20, 2006

Acts 7:54-8:1a

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Wednesday Evening

September 20,
2006

Acts 7:54-8:1a

To the Ends of
the Earth:
“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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