Stephen's Victory through Death
If you have a Bible near you, go ahead and grab it. We have a long section of Scripture to get through tonight but it’s also a truly remarkable section. Acts 6 is where we are going to be and while we are not going to read every verse, we will stop around verse 1 of Acts 8, so about 2 chapters in 30 minutes so we’ll see how this goes. Let me begin with this question: What do you get when faithful, Gospel witness comes face to face with hostile, ungodliness? What are the earthly rewards for spiritual faithfulness? You get persecution, you get hate, you may even get death and these are the rewards if we want to use that word that many within the Church don’t seem to acknowledge or recognize. Far too many Christians seem oblivious to the idea of suffering for their faith. Paul warns Timothy, and by extension all Christians in 2 Timothy 3:12 “Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” The question of persecution is not if it will come, it is when will it come. Understand if you are a Christian, you are always standing against the tide. You are always someone that is going upstream or against the status quo. You are someone who will be hated because they hate your Lord and Savior. Christ tells us in John 15:18-20
“If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours.
I know you guys are young and when I was your age, death was never on my mind because I thought I was invincible. Here is what I want to challenge you with right out of the gate: Are you prepared to die for the Lord Jesus Christ? Are you prepared to have the armies of hell rush at you because of you allegiance to Christ? Are you willing to go through persecutions, slanderings, and hardships for the One who left heaven to save you? If you are a follower of Christ, this is the call. This is the bar that we all must strive to meet. Just because we live in a country with religious freedom does not mean that we are immune from persecution and as your pastor, I would be doing you a grave misservice if I did not make you aware of these things. Here’s the thing I know this sounds heavy. I know the thought of dying or suffering can shake you up, it shakes me up too sometimes. I know that it would be great if we didn’t have to think about these things but I want you to be a people that are ready. What we are going to see today is that even death leads to victory for the faithful servant of Jesus Christ and we are going to see this in the example of a man named Stephen. Let’s pray and then we will dive into these chapters.
Who is Stephen?
Who is Stephen?
Who is Stephen and why does Luke take 2 full chapters to speak about this man? I’ll go ahead and spoil the ending, Stephen goes down in history as the first Christian martyr. What is a martyr? It is someone who is killed based off of their religious beliefs. So, we know the end of the story, but how does Stephen get to that point? It begins in Acts 6 where we see that the number of believers are just exploding and it gets to a point where the Apostles need some help handling some of the day to day operations of the church so they pick 7 men to help serve and one of those seven is Stephen and Stephen is described in Acts 6:5 as “a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit.” Then in verse 8 Stephen is described as “full of grace and power” and “doing great wonders and signs among the people.” Out of the 7, Stephen is the only one to be described like this, even though all of the men were Godly men. Stephen is a remarkable individual. I’d love to be described in the ways that he is described but not everyone is impressed with Stephen. Stephen’s witness starts to rub people the wrong way and this leads to his eventual demise. Let’s start reading in Acts 6:9-7:1
Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), and of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of those from Cilicia and Asia, rose up and disputed with Stephen. But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking. Then they secretly instigated men who said, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” And they stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him and seized him and brought him before the council, and they set up false witnesses who said, “This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us.” And gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel. And the high priest said, “Are these things so?”
The Accusations Against Stephen
The Accusations Against Stephen
Stephen causes such a fuss that he is brought before what is basically the Supreme Court of the nation of Israel. A crowd comes together and they force Stephen to appear before this court and they accuse him of 4 things and these 4 things are basically 4 of the worst things that one could be accused of in Israel. Those that turn in Stephen accuse him of defiling and blaspheming the 4 things that the Jews held to be the most sacred and most holy. What are those 4 things? Moses, God, the Temple, and the Law. These are serious accusations. What was the cost for blasphemy in Israel? What was to be done to the person that blasphemed God in Israel? They were to be put to death and to have not just 1 but 4 accusations of this magnitude, that demands a swift execution. To have this brought to the Supreme Court, one would think that Stephen would have been a state of absolute panic. You would think that if you have this many people against you and you know what the punishment is for being convicted of these crimes, that he would do anything that he could to get out of it. Any punishment that didn’t result in death, a normal guy probably would have strived to have gotten but Stephen doesn’t let the hysteria of the moment catch up to him. What Stephen is about to do is prove to the crowd that each of the 4 accusations against him have no merit. Stephen will show in his defense that he spoke of the things that Moses spoke of, he worshipped the God of Israel, he was faithful to the Law in his obedience to Christ and that they themselves were guilty, and that Scripture pointed ahead to the day where the temple would be destroyed and it wasn’t just that Jesus would destroy the temple and change the customs that Moses delivered. Let’s quickly look at Stephen’s defense and this defense takes up the majority of Acts 7 so we will just look at some of the highlights.
Stephen’s Angelic Face
Before Stephen even begins his verbal defense, Acts 6:15 shows us that there is no truth behind these accusations. Luke records that as everyone in the council looked at Stephen, they saw that his face was like the face of an angel and this is a reference to something very important from the book of Exodus and I will be preaching a little about this on Sunday if you want to come. As Moses went up to receive the Law, as he stood before the presence of God, his face became radiant, it was glowing because he was in the presence of the glory of God. Exodus 34:29-30 “When Moses came down from Mount Sinai, with the two tablets of the testimony in his hand as he came down from the mountain, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. Aaron and all the people of Israel saw Moses, and behold, the skin of his face shone, and they were afraid to come near him.” Stephen is being accused of going against Moses and yet his face resembles the very thing that happened to Moses as he came down from the presence of God. John Stott said, “Was it not God’s deliberate purpose to give the same radiant face to Stephen when he was accused of opposing the law as he had given to Moses when he received the law? In this way God was showing that both Moses’ ministry of the law and Stephen’s interpretation of it had his approval. Indeed God’s blessing on Stephen is evident throughout. The grace and power of his ministry, his irresistible wisdom and his shining face were all tokens that the favour of God rested upon him.” Before Stephen utters a word, he already has the approval of the God that the crowd claims that he had blasphemed. How then does Stephen address the accusations? He addresses them by appealing to Jewish history and Scripture.
Stephen’s Appeal to Jewish History and faithfulness
In chapter 7, Stephen takes the court basically through the books of Genesis and Exodus and briefly touches on the lives of David and Solomon and a reference to the book of Amos. Some might wonder why focus on those first 2 books and I would say that he does that because he has been accused of blaspheming Moses, God, and the Law and it is in those first few books of the Bible where he needs to build his defense from because the Law and Moses are introduced in the book of Exodus and Genesis points ahead to the time of the Exodus. Stephen begins his defense by pointing to Abraham and the great promise that the Lord had made to him. God had promised Abraham that the Lord would bring from the line of Abraham a great nation but this nation would be enslaved for 400 years but God would judge the nation that they served. Abraham would become the father of Isaac and Isaac became the Father of Jacob and Jacob the father of the twelve sons of Israel. All of this is what Stephen says from Acts 7:2-50 so feel free to turn there and follow along. Instead of starting with Moses, Stephen references the story of Joseph and how his brothers were jealous of him and sold him into slavery in Egypt. Acts 7:9-10
“And the patriarchs, jealous of Joseph, sold him into Egypt; but God was with him and rescued him out of all his afflictions and gave him favor and wisdom before Pharaoh, king of Egypt, who made him ruler over Egypt and over all his household.
Why does Stephen begin with this? It is because he wants to show these Jews that from the very beginning they have rejected, despised, and hated the ones that God has sent to rescue them. Joseph was hated by his brothers and yet he was the savior of his brothers! Joseph’s life is key to understanding the providence of God. God uses bad situations to bring forth tremendous good, even if we do not always see it. Joseph’s family moves to Egypt and they thrive but the king of Egypt enslaves them, just as the Lord had already told Abraham. The time comes where a baby named Moses is born and you know the story of how the Egyptians were killing the Jewish baby boys but how Moses had survived by being adopted by the king of Egypt’s daughter so Moses grows up as a prince of Egypt but he has some knowledge that he is Jewish. Acts 7:23-29
“When he was forty years old, it came into his heart to visit his brothers, the children of Israel. And seeing one of them being wronged, he defended the oppressed man and avenged him by striking down the Egyptian. He supposed that his brothers would understand that God was giving them salvation by his hand, but they did not understand. And on the following day he appeared to them as they were quarreling and tried to reconcile them, saying, ‘Men, you are brothers. Why do you wrong each other?’ But the man who was wronging his neighbor thrust him aside, saying, ‘Who made you a ruler and a judge over us? Do you want to kill me as you killed the Egyptian yesterday?’ At this retort Moses fled and became an exile in the land of Midian, where he became the father of two sons.
For 40 years Moses lives in Midian and the time comes where the Lord appears to Moses and sends him back to Egypt to lead the people of Israel out of their slavery. Acts 7:35-39 ““This Moses, whom they rejected, saying, ‘Who made you a ruler and a judge?’—this man God sent as both ruler and redeemer by the hand of the angel who appeared to him in the bush. This man led them out, performing wonders and signs in Egypt and at the Red Sea and in the wilderness for forty years. This is the Moses who said to the Israelites, ‘God will raise up for you a prophet like me from your brothers.’ This is the one who was in the congregation in the wilderness with the angel who spoke to him at Mount Sinai, and with our fathers. He received living oracles to give to us. Our fathers refused to obey him, but thrust him aside, and in their hearts they turned to Egypt,” As Moses is receiving the Law on Mount Sinai, the people of Israel rebel against him and against the Lord by worshipping a golden calf and in response to the people’s wickedness, the Lord puts 3,000 of them to death. Throughout Stephen’s defense, he is telling the courts exactly what Scripture testifies to. It’s as if he is saying, “look at your own history, look at your own Scriptures and tell me where I’m wrong. I’m teaching exactly what Moses said, I’m saying nothing against the Law itself, I worship the very God you claim to worship but here is the thing, you are no better than your fathers because you are making the same mistakes that they did, you are rejecting the one that God has sent to you and you are not being faithful to the Lord.” Stephen says to the crowd in Acts 7:51-53
“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.”
Christian Blood is the Seed of the Church
Christian Blood is the Seed of the Church
And that is how Stephen ends his defense. How do the people respond to this? Verse 54 says that when they heard these things they were enraged and they ground their teeth at him. They were angry before but now they are furious. They have reached the precipice of rage. John Calvin said that these people weren’t just angry, it was like they were stricken with madness and burst out like fire from a flame. Despite this, Stephen is calm as a cucumber. Why? Look at verse 55, “But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.” Stephen sees this and he says to the crowd, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” (Verse 56). This is the straw that breaks the camels back. Why do they respond like this? Because this very court knew that Jesus identified as the Son of Man and to say that he saw the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God was to say that Jesus of Nazareth was God Himself and possessed all the authority of God Almighty. This was too much for them to bear. Acts 7:57-60 “But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. And 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.” What is death to the follower of Christ but just another sleep? One of the greatest preachers to have ever lived, Martyn Lloyd-Jones said this about Stephen and it’s a fairly long quote but I think it is a needed one, “Here was Stephen, being stoned to death just because he was a Christian. He had done no harm to them or to anybody else. He was doing great good, he had worked miracles, he was preaching a Gospel of love and of salvation, and they stoned him and gnashed their teeth. They hated him but he was sorry for them, though they were killing him. He had a heart full of mercy and compassion toward them. He grieved for them; he interceded for them; he prayed that they might not be punished for this, that this would not be added to the account that was already against them. He asked God to have mercy upon them because he knew that they did not know what they were doing. He did exactly what his Lord and master had done from the cross: This is Christianity!”
Christ as Judge and Mediator
As Stephen went through this, he looked up and saw that which he desired above all else. Standing above Him was the King of Kings and Lord of Lords and Christ Himself was standing at the right hand of God. What did this tell Stephen and what does it tell us? Why is this significant? It reminded him and it reminds us that Christ is the true Judge of all and He is the one mediator between God and man. Stephen stood before the supreme court of Israel but He was being represented by the eternal Son of God in Heaven. R.C. Sproul put it like this, “The heavens opened, and Stephen saw the Judge of heaven and earth rising in his defense.” As Stephen looked up and saw Christ, he was reminded that because of his faithfulness where Christ was, he too would be. Christ stood to show His approval of Stephen’s witness and to remind him that He alone was the final authority over creation.
God’s Will is Done in Spite of Suffering
God’s Will is Done in Spite of Suffering
Now I know we are running short on time but what can we gather from this moment in history? How can you guys as teenagers apply this into your life? I want to say 3 things:
Our Suffering is Never for Nothing
Our suffering is never for nothing. God is able to use that which seems the most destructive, the martyrdom of Christians, to make the Gospel known to others. We need to learn to suffer well. Suffering and martyrdom are the supreme weapons of believers. Why? Because when the world sees Christians that are willing to go to the point of death, who are willing to count all things as loss in order to know and follow Jesus, the world will stop and think, “They really believed what they said they believed and if they were willing to seal that belief with their blood, maybe I should look deeper into it.” Another point worth emphasizing is this: God was able to use Stephen through his death for a greater display of God’s glory than through Stephen’s life. What do I mean? Look at Acts 8:1 “And Saul approved of his execution. And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.” Jesus told His disciples that they would be His witnesses to Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth. The Gospel doesn’t necessarily leave the corners of Jerusalem until after the death of Stephen. Stephen’s death pushed the Gospel deeper and wider than it had ever been pushed but that isn’t the only thing. The beginning of verse 1 says that a man named Saul was present and he approved of Stephen’s execution. This very Saul, also called Paul, would be the man that would write the majority of our New Testament, the man who would become the greatest missionary, maybe even the greatest Christian, to ever life. That does not happen without Stephen and his witness to the Gospel. Even if you were to die for your faith today, God is able to use your death to change the world.
Christ pleads our case in Heaven so we have nothing to fear
The next reminder or application that we have is that just as Christ stood as Stephen’s representative and mediator before God the Father, so will He represent every Christian for all of eternity. Christ is representing us in Heaven so we have nothing to fear from this earth. There is nothing that man can do that can take that away from us. As long as we are followers of Christ, Jesus looks at us and says, “That one is mine. That is one that I atoned for and purchased with my blood. Their sins are covered and they are clothed totally in my righteousness.” As long as He does that and He will do that for all eternity, we can make it through another day. We can make it through persecution and heartache because we have an advocate before the Father.
Man will be judged by the Perfect Judge within the True Supreme Court of Heaven
Finally, it is a reminder that all will one day stand before the Perfect Judge within the True Supreme Court of Heaven. James Montgomery Boice said, “In this life we go through many situations in which we are on trial, and although we try to do our best, we often fail and are even misunderstood. We get discouraged. But we have to remember that the trials we go through in this life are not the final trial of history. They may be important. We want to do as well in them as we possibly can. That is why we have to be strong and bear a faithful testimony in all circumstances. But the trial that really matters, the verdict that counts, is the verdict that is given by the Lord Jesus Christ and by God the Father.” All will stand before this Perfect Judge one day and He will judge fair and true. Do you have a representative before this Judge? Do you have someone who will plead your innocence? You need Christ because He alone must advocate on your behalf. If you rely on yourself, if you represent yourself, you will die in your sins and be cast away from the presence of God forever in Hell and this is why we as the Church need to reach the lost because if we don’t they will have no advocate before the Father, no Mediator, no comforter, and even if it costs you your life, would you be willing to lay it down so that others might live? Christ Himself did it for you, are you willing to do it for others? At the cost of your reputation, your goods, your very life? Would you stand for Christ so that others may taste and see that the Lord is good and that they too would be able to know that they have an advocate in Heaven. May the Lord use our lives to push the Gospel to places it hasn’t yet reached, to hearts that it hasn’t yet reached, even at the cost of our very lives because when we belong to Jesus, they can take our lives because even if they do, our death is just a short sleep before we take that first step into that which our Heavenly Father has prepared for us. Let’s pray and then we will worship together.