The First Christian Martyr
P. G. Mathew | Sunday, August 16, 1998
Copyright © 1998, P. G. Mathew
This passage of Scripture teaches us about the witness of the first Christian martyr, Stephen. Now the name Stephen, or Stephanos in Greek, means "garland." We find another man in the Bible, Ichabod, who was the grandson of the high priest Eli. In the Hebrew the name Ichabod means "no glory." The name "Ichabod" describes the state of Jewish ritual worship after the coming of Jesus Christ. The system of sacrificial worship at the temple of Jerusalem was rendered obsolete by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Stephen was killed for his bold declaration of the truth that God's glory was no longer found in the temple but in God's church and in its head, the Lord Jesus Christ.
Judaism had always prided itself in the holy land, in the law of Moses, and in the temple, but the coming of Jesus the Messiah brought fulfillment of what the law and the temple had stood for. In Jesus Christ the kingdom of God came, bringing with it a new age and a new order. In this new order there is no need for the temple because Jesus Christ is the temple of God, together with us who are his body, the church, and through his once-for-all sacrifice the way to God the Father has been opened up for all who put their trust in him. In other words, Jesus Christ fulfilled God's law by offering the final, acceptable sacrifice of himself through which men can be reconciled to God.
But the leaders of the nation of Israel, the Sanhedrin, rejected their Messiah, Prince and Savior, Jesus. They accused him of blasphemy and killed him because their high veneration for the land, the law, and the temple left no room for God's further saving activity in Jesus. As far as these people were concerned, spirituality had been captured in externalities. They were proud of being circumcised in the flesh, just as some Christians are proud of being baptized, but they were not regenerate. They were not circumcised in their hearts, which alone counts in the presence of God. Although they offered sacrifices to God in the temple, they did not truly love him. They were trusting in external observances, not in God.
Jesus himself spoke about these things. He declared the temple a den of robbers and then predicted its destruction, saying, "Look, your house is left to you desolate." In other words, Jesus was saying, "You will be Ichabod, those from whom the glory departed, because you are refusing to accept God's plan of salvation through me. You think that God will stick with the temple and the land, in spite of your disobedience and refusal to believe in me, but that is utterly false. It will all be destroyed."
We must trust in God, not in buildings or religious observances. Even today many people regularly assemble in churches, but to presume that God is always in their midst is not a given. The question is whether these people are assembling in God's name to worship him his way.
Stephen understood more clearly than any of the apostles the implications of the death, resurrection, ascension, and session of Jesus Christ on Judaism. He knew that Judaism must give way to Christianity because Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of what Judaism stood for. He recognized that Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes, which Paul later wrote in Romans 10:4. He realized that access to God was no longer through earthly sacrifices but through faith in Jesus Christ alone.
Additionally, Stephen understood that God is not limited by geography or by a building; rather, anyone anywhere can worship God in Christ. Stephen comprehended what Jesus said to the Samaritan woman: "God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship him in spirit and in truth" (John 4:24). Stephen realized the time had come when people could worship the Father wherever they were, not just on Mount Gerizim, as the Samaritans did, or in Jerusalem.
When Stephen began to declare these great truths, the Jews charged him with blasphemy. They said he was speaking against Moses, against God, against the law, and against the temple. They misrepresented the teaching of Stephen just as they misrepresented the teaching of Jesus Christ when he said, "Destroy this temple and I will raise it up in three days." Jesus had been speaking about his own body and the body of his church, but the Jews said he was speaking about the temple.
Let us examine this first Christian martyr, Stephen. We will look at the type of man he was, his message before the Sanhedrin, and his martyrdom.
Stephen the Man
Stephen was a Hellenistic Jew who had been ordained by the apostles to oversee food distribution to the poor of the church. Before his conversion to Christianity, Stephen may have been a frequent worshiper at the synagogue of the Libertines, one of the perhaps 480 synagogues in Jerusalem at that time. Libertines were descendants of the Jews whom Pompey had captured, taken to Rome and sold as slaves in 63 B.C. Eventually freed, these former slaves came to Jerusalem and established a synagogue where Jews from Cyrene, Alexandria, Cilicia, and Asia worshiped. It is possible that Saul of Tarsus also attended this synagogue because he was from Cilicia in Asia Minor.
Stephen may have been among the three thousand who repented and trusted in Jesus Christ alone and were baptized in the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. Although he was a young man, Stephen was a brilliant student of the Scriptures like Saul of Tarsus and Apollos of Alexandria.
In Acts 6 and 7 we see just what type of man Stephen was:
He was full of the Holy Spirit. Stephen was not a double-minded person. The Bible says he was full of the Holy Spirit, meaning he was fully controlled by God, possessing an undivided heart and trusting and loving God with all his heart, mind, soul, and strength. Every believer is commanded to be filled with the Holy Spirit, and Stephen was in that state.
He was full of wisdom. Acts 6 and 7 tell us how those who argued against Stephen could not stand up against his wisdom. Stephen was not only a practical man but he was also one who could interpret Scriptures correctly, which requires wisdom.
He was full of faith. Stephen trusted in Jesus Christ alone for his salvation and on a daily basis. He believed in the biblical affirmations that Christ died for his sins, that Christ was raised for his justification, that Christ was glorified, and that Christ is Lord of the universe, governing every aspect of it at all times.
He was full of power. Jesus promised his disciples that they would receive power when the Holy Spirit came upon them. Stephen experienced this power daily--power to live a Christian life, power to proclaim the gospel with confidence and without shame, and power even to perform miracles and wonders, which we read about in Acts 6:8.
He was full of the grace of God, as we also read in Acts 6:8. God smiled upon Stephen and he experienced God's favor. Thus, when Stephen was dragged before the Sanhedrin and they looked intently upon his face, his face was brilliant, like the face of an angel, as we read in Acts 6:15.
Stephen was not full of gold and silver or rich in material things, but he was full of what mattered: full of God, full of wisdom, full of faith, full of power, and full of grace. Stephen was a man approved by God, in other words.
Stephen Declares the Gospel
After Stephen became a Christian he visited the synagogue of the Libertines in Jerusalem. Why do you suppose he went? Because he recognized that the people there needed Jesus Christ. Stephen knew that Jesus Christ was the fulfillment of all the Old Testament stood for, and so he went to the synagogue to declare the gospel with great power, boldness, confidence, and wisdom. In Acts 6:9-10 we read that no one could oppose his wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke. We can presume that Saul of Tarsus, the brilliant young student of the great professor Gamaliel, was present but even he could not successfully refute Stephen.
Imagine Stephen's words: "Brothers, I have wonderful news for you! Jesus of Nazareth is the promised Messiah, the Christ. He alone fulfilled God's law and sacrificed himself on the cross for our sins. Jesus Christ was raised for our justification and now anyone anywhere who calls upon God through him will be saved. Not only that, Christ's death and resurrection rendered the law and the temple obsolete. Faith in Jesus Christ alone is all that matters. We must all realize that salvation is not by works and the keeping of external traditions but by grace through faith for all."
Stephen declared God's truth to the Sanhedrin, preaching what Jesus Christ himself preached. The Sanhedrin could not refute Stephen's arguments so they resorted to deception and lies. They charged Stephen with blasphemy and sought to kill him just as they had killed the Messiah, the Lord of the universe. They stirred up the people against Stephen and finally produced some false witnesses to speak against Stephen. These witnesses, however, could only bring ad hominem arguments against Stephen. When reason fails, mud prevails.
It is interesting to note that we find no mention of any apostle or believer standing with Stephen at this time. Just as no believers were with Jesus when he was tried, so they were not with Stephen. Additionally, just as the Pharisees and Sadducees united against Jesus, they also united against Stephen. Why do you think they opposed him so vigorously? Because both the Pharisees and Sadducees venerated the law and the temple. Their entire position in life, power, and income depended upon this type of worship.
The Pharisees and Sadducees joined forces to put a stop to Stephen's preaching. They would not tolerate any apparent depreciation of the law and the temple, especially Stephen's claim that the law and the temple had become obsolete since the resurrection, ascension and session of the Lord Jesus Christ. These were their orthodoxies, and far be it from them to change their thoughts to align them with God's truth!
I sincerely hope that we will not to be like these Pharisees and Sadducees in our thinking. We must abandon our own particular orthodoxies in favor of the gospel. We must always be ready to ask ourselves, "What does Jesus Christ say? What does the Bible say?" because the important thing is not what we say but what God says. We must be ever ready to repent, change our thinking, and accept the thinking of God that we may be saved. May we never pretend, like the Sanhedrin did, that we are right and the Messiah, the Bible, Stephen, and the apostles are wrong.
As Stephen preached the gospel, he was dragged violently from the synagogue to stand in the midst the Sanhedrin. There, as the Sanhedrin looked at Stephen, they noticed his face was "like the face of an angel." Just as the face of Moses shone and radiated with glory, here we read that the face of Stephen was also shining with a brilliance put there by God. That brilliance was a sign of God's approval, God's smile, but the Sanhedrin did not recognize it as such nor could they tolerate it.
In Psalm 34:5 we read, "Those who look to him are radiant." If we are in communion with the God of glory, there ought to be some glory on our faces, even in the midst of trouble, persecution, and attack. We must never run to a cave and hide. Why? The Bible tells us that the joy of the Lord is our strength and that we are more than conquerors through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Second, let us examine the message of defense that Stephen gave before the Sanhedrin. The thrust of Stephen's defense was this:
That the God of glory is not limited to Jerusalem because he is the God of all the earth;
That the temple, or any manufactured dwelling place, cannot contain God the Creator because he is the Most High, infinite, personal, invisible, eternal God;
That the law pointed to the Messiah and therefore was not an end in itself;
That the fathers of the present leaders of Israel rejected God's chosen leaders, rejected keeping of the law, and rejected true worship of God;
That the temple in Jerusalem did not guarantee piety of the people. In fact, it was because of their sin against the glorious God who put his name in the temple that God kicked them out of their country and sent them first to Assyria and then to Babylon;
That people like Abraham, Joseph, Moses met with and worshiped God outside of Palestine; and
That Jesus of Nazareth is the prophet Moses spoke about, but instead of listening to him and obeying him, these people rejected him and put him to death.
This was the defense Stephen made before this august body, the Supreme Court of Israel. In Acts 7:1 we read that the high priest, probably Caiaphas, asked Stephen, "Are these charges true?" In other words, "Is it true that you spoke against the law of Moses and against this temple? How could you? This is our life, and we will not tolerate it!" Then Stephen began his great defense, and in my view his face glowed the whole time he was speaking.
No Boundaries for God
First of all, Stephen said, God is not limited to one location. In Acts 7:2 Stephen declared, "The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham while he was still in Mesopotamia." In other words, God was not limited to Palestine. Then he said the God of glory himself appeared to Abraham. This was not an angelic visitation--Abraham met with the true and living God. Then Stephen said Abraham did not inherit any land in Palestine, "not even a foot of ground" (Acts 7:5).
"Members of the Sanhedrin," Stephen was saying, "you glory so much in your land, but your father Abraham did not own even one foot of ground in Palestine." In fact, Stephen said, the great patriarch Abraham was a pilgrim all his life. We read about this also in Hebrews 11:9-10, "By faith [Abraham] made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents . . . for he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God."
God has never been limited to Jerusalem or the temple. In fact, Abraham may never have anticipated a temple in Palestine, but he did look forward to a city with foundations whose builder and maker is God. That city is described to us in Hebrews 12:22-24, "But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel."
Whenever believers want to gather in Christ's name, they do not have to go to a temple in Jerusalem or anywhere else. Why? Because when they come together, they are coming together to the heavenly Jerusalem, Mount Zion, to meet with God the judge of all men, with Jesus Christ the mediator of a new covenant, and with the spirits of all just men made perfect. Stephen was describing this communion to the Sanhedrin.
Then Stephen told the Sanhedrin that God had a plan of deliverance for his people, but they resisted his plan. God raised up Joseph the son of Jacob to deliver his people, but, filled with envy and hatred, the patriarchs sold Joseph as a slave. That, Stephen implied, was exactly what these Jewish leaders had done to their greater deliverer, Jesus Christ himself.
Next, Stephen said that when God raised up another deliverer in the person of Moses, God's people rejected him too. In Acts 7:30-34 Stephen told the leaders that God himself appeared in the burning bush in the wilderness to Moses and ordered him to take off his shoes because the ground that he was standing on was holy ground. This was another reminder to the Sanhedrin that the sanctuary or temple where God meets with his people can be anywhere, whether in Mesopotamia, Egypt, or Midian--it makes no difference. No one can lock God Most High into a land, a building or certain traditions.
In Acts 7:37 Stephen said, "This is that Moses who told the Israelites, 'God will send you a prophet like me from among your own people.'" "In other words," Stephen was saying, "the Moses of the Old Testament prophesied about the coming of a new Moses, the Messiah, a prophet like him from his own people." What were they to do when this prophet came? They must listen to him and obey him. Remember how God the Father said about Jesus, "This is my beloved Son in whom I am well-pleased; hear ye him"? That is what God said to the Jews and that is what he is saying to all of us as well. If we haven't heard him and done what he says to do, we must change today. Why? There is a final judgment. Human beings are grass; like the flowers we will fade and fall and be buried, but then will come the judgment. We must never hide behind sociology, psychology, philosophy, or other religions. Everyone who has ever lived will have to face the God of glory, to whom we must give an account.
A History of Rebellion
Then Stephen challenged the Sanhedrin, in essence saying, "Now let me tell you how good our fathers were." In Acts 7:39 we read, "But our fathers refused to obey him," meaning they did not obey Moses. In other words, Stephen was saying, "Our fathers refused to obey God. They pretended they were God's people, revering him and keeping his law, but they didn't. Remember how they rejected God in their hearts and wanted to turn back to Egypt?" Why did Stephen say this to the Sanhedrin? Because they, like their fathers, were hypocrites who pretended to keep the law even while they despised it. In fact, they despised and persecuted all of God's prophets and murdered the Messiah, Jesus Christ.
Jesus himself spoke in John 5:45-47 about this matter of God's law and whether or not his people obeyed: "But do not think I will accuse you before the Father. Your accuser is Moses, on whom your hopes are set. If you believed Moses, you would believe me for he wrote about me [Deut. 18:15]. But since you do not believe what he wrote, how are you going to believe what I say?" This same argument was leveled against the Sanhedrin by Stephen, whose face was glowing because he was full of the Holy Spirit, full of wisdom, full of power, full of faith, and full of grace.
Next, in Acts 7:40-43 Stephen told the Sanhedrin their fathers became idolaters. Not only did they rebel against God by rejecting his law; they also rejected the God of glory and began to worship idols. As a result, Stephen said, God turned away from them and gave them over to their idolatry.
Then Stephen rejected the Sanhedrin's argument that the temple was the only physical dwelling for God. In effect, Stephen said, "Members of the Sanhedrin, let me tell you something about the temple. Before it was built by Solomon, there was the tabernacle built according to the pattern shown on the mount by Moses. But this tabernacle moved wherever the people of God went, and whenever it moved, there was a manifestation of God, whether in the pillar of fire or of cloud, and in the glory above the ark on top of the cherubim. In other words, God moved with his people. Don't say God is stuck in a permanent building.
"Besides," Stephen continued, "even when the temple was built, God's people disobeyed him, denied him, and became idolaters. The truth is, Solomon's temple did not guarantee people's faithfulness to God. So God expelled his people from his presence and his glory departed from the temple. Don't ever presume that because you have the temple and the law, you have God and are approved and saved by him. You are not."
Then Stephen quoted Isaiah 66:1-2, "'Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. Where is the house you will build for me? Where will my resting place be? Has not my hand made all these things, and so they came into being?' declares the Lord." In other words, Stephen was saying, to pretend that the Creator, infinite, personal, invisible, almighty God can be captured in a building made by human hands is the height of stupidity and foolishness!
What is the summary of Stephen's sermon? That God is God of all the earth, not just of Palestine; that he appeared several times outside of Palestine to the forefathers of the people of Israel; that their fathers rebelled against God's appointed leaders, rejecting the law of Moses by disobeying it; that not only did they reject the God of glory himself, they also began to worship the creation, in particular the stars; and that Moses told their fathers that a prophet would rise up among them whom they must listen to, obey and follow, and that if anybody did not obey, he would be cut off from the community of the people of God.
In Acts 7:51-53 we find Stephen's concluding arguments. Up until this point he had been defending himself, but now he began to accuse the Sanhedrin. "You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute?" In other words, Stephen was saying, "Members of the Sanhedrin, you have accused me of speaking against the temple, the law and God, but I am not the one who neglected true worship of God. You did it!" In the Greek, it is second person plural, meaning, "All of you are stiff-necked people!"
Here is a young man looking at this august, scholarly body of older men, including the great Gamaliel, and saying, "You stiff-necked people!" meaning, "You who never surrendered your neck to bear the yoke of a master!" I used to plow the fields when I lived in India and I know what a yoke is. We would put a yoke on the neck of two oxen and make them pull the plow. What Stephen was saying to these people was, "You never surrendered to God Almighty. Your necks are stiff and need to be broken."
There are two ways to deal with a stiff neck. First, it can be broken. But, second, it can bend and receive God's yoke, as Jesus invited us to do when he said, "Come unto me and take my yoke upon you." There is no third alternative, brothers and sisters. You can either yield to God's rule or you can remain a stiff-necked, yokeless person who insists on your own way and never surrenders to God's demands, even though God himself created you and you are but a man of one breath. But one day we shall all stand before God and there will be no argument we can make to justify ourselves. On that day all mouths will be shut before the glorious God who judges righteously.
Not only did Stephen say these people had stiff necks but also he said they had uncircumcised hearts. That is an interesting appellation. The Jews called Gentiles uncircumcised dogs, saying they were like those who were made as fuel for the fire. But here Stephen was saying, "You, the leaders and elite of the Jewish nation, are Gentile dogs." In fact, the apostle Paul uses the same word in Philippians 3 to describe the Jews also.
What was Stephen's message to these leaders? "Even though you are circumcised outwardly, you are dogs like the pagan Gentiles. Why? Because you are not circumcised in your hearts, in your minds, in your wills and in your affections--in the center of your human existence. Additionally, you are not circumcised in your ears. When the prophets spoke, you put your fingers in your ears and refused to allow the word of God come into you, affect your hearts, and change them around."
This is not smooth preaching, is it? I have been told many times, "Pastor, you should be nicer and smile when you preach. Many flies can be caught by honey, you know." But I don't see Stephen catching any flies with these words. What did he say about these people? That they were stiff-necked and uncircumcised in their hearts and ears, just like their fathers. We are supposed to be like our fathers in a good sense, but here Stephen was saying, "Gamaliel, I know you are a great professor and the head of the seminary of Hillel. Caiaphas, Annas, and everybody else, you are respected leaders of the community and high in the sight of all people. But you are just like your fathers," meaning, "You are just like those who rejected God and his word and who killed the prophets of God."
As modern people, we can easily say these things about the Sanhedrin, but we must apply the Scriptures to ourselves as well. May God help us to be sober and think about what Stephen said next: "You always resist the Holy Spirit!" The Bible tells us to resist the devil and submit to God, but these people resisted the Holy Spirit and submitted to the devil. In fact, they were demonized--filled with the devil--and became his spokespersons while opposing the Holy Spirit of God.
Then Stephen asked, "Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute?" That is a rhetorical question. Their fathers always persecuted the prophets of God. Then Stephen said, "They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One." In the Old Testament "the Righteous One" stands for the God of glory, the God of Israel, God Almighty. Jesus Christ was this Righteous One, the Prophet of God Almighty, who came for the sake of making us righteous by his work of redemption. Their fathers even killed those who predicted his coming.
And finally Stephen said, "And now you have betrayed and murdered him," meaning the Righteous One, their own Messiah. And he concluded, "You who have received the law that was put into effect through the angels but have not obeyed it." In other words, although the Sanhedrin accused Stephen of not honoring God's law or the temple, the truth was that they had never obeyed God's law themselves.
No Room for Repentance
What a powerful sermon! It echoed what Jesus Christ himself preached in Matthew 23:29-37 and Peter preached in Acts 3. But, whereas Peter told the people, "You acted in ignorance," Stephen didn't say that. Why? These people had heard these things time and time again--first from Jesus, then from Peter and John, then from all the apostles, and now, finally, from Stephen. They could no longer claim ignorance as an excuse. And when we carefully examine this sermon, we notice there is no command to repent. The opportunity for repentance for these people was gone.
How does Stephen's sermon apply to us? As part of the Holy Scriptures, these things are written for our rebuke, correction, comfort, consolation, hope and admonition. Therefore, we must rid ourselves of all pretension and carefully examine our own hearts in the light of this passage. We can say that the Sanhedrin was crazy, and it was, but the question here is, does any of this apply to us? Let me assure you, the members of the Sanhedrin thought they were God's people doing God's will. They stoned Stephen to death out of obedience to the Bible, meting out capital punishment as they did to Jesus Christ.
We must examine our own hearts and see whether we are stiff-necked, uncircumcised, and unclean in the center of our personality--in our intellect, our mind, our will and our affections. We must ask whether we have put our fingers in our ears, not wanting to hear when the word is proclaimed. We must ask if we demonstrate antipathy or animosity toward the word of God when it tells us we are sinners, even though God will save us only when we confess that we are sinners. We must realize that God will never save a person who is trusting in his own "righteousness," because Jesus Christ alone is the Righteous One. He was sent into the world to make us righteous, but the only way that will happen is if we repent and trust in him and are given his perfect righteousness.
Stephen was full of the Holy Spirit and, therefore, he was full of the Scriptures. He was a diligent student of the Bible, and God gave him great brilliance to understand the whole Old Testament! My prayer is that we all emulate Stephen and commit ourselves to diligent study of God's doctrines, God's truths. Then, when God speaks we will say, "Yes, Lord, your servant heareth," going when he says go and coming when he says come. Then we will be people who do not resist and fight against the Holy Spirit, but resist the devil and yield to the Holy Spirit. And if you are not a Christian, may you even now yield to the Holy Spirit that you may be saved. Ask God to perform a supernatural work in your heart so that darkness will become light, death will be made alive, flesh will become spirit, disobedience will become obedience, enmity against God will become love of God, and the arrogance will become humility.
Like the Sanhedrin we may have heard these things many, many times. May God help us today to bend our neck willingly and ask the Lord Jesus Christ to put his yoke upon us--the yoke and rule of his word. May we ask God, "O God, circumcise our hearts that we may think your thoughts, love your ways, and decide for you."
Stephen the Martyr
The third point we want to examine is Stephen the martyr. The word martyr comes from a Greek word martus which means to bear witness. But in the English language martyr also means one who dies for his or her faith or beliefs. Perhaps you have heard of Palestinian boys and girls who are recruited by politicians to carry bombs on their bodies, go into the busy streets of Israel and explode. These children are assured they will go to paradise when they die because of their martyrdom.
Many people, Christians as well as Moslems, have been martyred for their faith in this century. In fact, more people have been killed for their faith, especially the Christian faith, in this century than at any other time. Around the world Christians have lost their jobs, had their properties confiscated, been put into prison, sent to labor camps, sold into slavery, and, in some countries, had their organs harvested and sold.
Stephen was the first Christian to die for his faith. In Acts 7:54 we read, "When they heard this," meaning when the Sanhedrin heard the reasoned argument of Stephen, "they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him." What did Stephen say that so aggravated the Sanhedrin? He said that it is not he who had violated the law of Moses and spoke against the God of Israel, but the Israelites, specifically the Sanhedrin. He said it was the Jewish leaders who had always persecuted God's prophets and killed them. He said they were the stiff-necked ones, uncircumcised in their hearts and ears, who had always resisted the Holy Spirit.
This young man, full of the Holy Spirit, said these things as he summarized the history of Israel in his long sermon. What was the reaction of the Sanhedrin? "When they heard this, they were furious." The Greek word for "furious" means they were sawn asunder, cut in two. The logic of Stephen's argument cut them in two and they were filled with pain. But this was not the pain of conviction. These people didn't cry out in agony, "What must we do to be saved?" They were in pain because they hated what Stephen was saying. They were in so much pain that they began to gnash their teeth, which is also what people will be doing in hell--gnashing and grinding their teeth. These people were demonized and acted like wild animals in their animosity toward Stephen.
But verse 55 tells us Stephen was full of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit, the Comforter and Counselor sent to us by God, is always with God's people and during this time of great trial the Holy Spirit was with Stephen. I don't know what happened to the apostles, or the twenty thousand or so other believers who lived in Jerusalem at the time. They are not mentioned as standing with Stephen during this trial. Probably Stephen stood alone just as the Lord Jesus Christ, abandoned by all, stood alone before Pilate. But Stephen was not alone. He was full of the Holy Spirit, the Comforter. God himself was with Stephen.
Acts 7:55 tells us Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven. . ." Let me assure you, there is a heaven. We only see and understand that which can be touched and felt and analyzed and measured--in other words, the created world, the visible world, that which is seen. That is all that an unbeliever sees and, tragically, that is all many Christians see also--the visible world of gold, silver, money, power, and position. But there is a heaven as well as a hell, and at just the right moment heaven opened to encourage Stephen. The Holy Spirit and the Lord Jesus Christ came to Stephen's aid. Heaven opened and he saw the glory of God.
Remember the word Ichabod? The glory of God had departed from the temple long ago and it had become Ichabod, meaning its glory was gone. The glorious God who had appeared to Abraham in Mesopotamia, to the patriarchs in Egypt, to Moses on Mount Sinai, now appeared to Stephen, but he was in heaven, not in the temple.
In Acts 7:55 we read that Stephen looked up and saw "the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God." With face still glowing Stephen told the Sanhedrin, "Look at this! What I have been preaching is not false. It is the truth. Look, I see heaven opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God. You murdered him, but he is risen, exalted, ascended into the heavens, in heaven and I see him standing on the right hand of God."
Then Stephen told the Sanhedrin, "I see the Son of Man." Stephen was the only person other than Jesus in the New Testament who used the title, "Son of Man" to refer to Jesus Christ. We also find this title in the book of Daniel, especially in Daniel 7:13-14, "In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations, and men of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed." In other words, Stephen was saying Jesus Christ, the Son of Man, is divine. He is God and has all authority in heaven and on earth.
Jesus himself said the same thing when he faced the same Sanhedrin. In Matthew 26 we read, "Then the high priest stood up and said to Jesus, 'Are you not going to answer?' Jesus remained silent. The high priest said to him, 'I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.'" What is the answer? "'Yes, it is as you say,' Jesus replied. 'But I say to all of you: In the future you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven'" (Matt. 26:62-64). That was now being fulfilled when Stephen declared, "I see the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God."
Heaven opened! This passage tells us there is a heaven, there is a God in heaven, and there is the Son of Man who has received all authority in heaven and on earth standing at the right hand of God the Father. But he is standing in heaven, not in the temple. Can the temple save anyone? No. Only by believing on the Lord Jesus Christ can we be saved.
Stephen Is Stoned
How did the Sanhedrin react to Stephen's words? In Acts 7:57 we read, "At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him. . ." The members of the Sanhedrin could not stomach the idea that Jesus, whom they murdered as a blasphemer, was the Lord and God who possessed all authority in heaven and on earth, as Stephen was declaring.
What animosity, what hatred, these people demonstrated against Jesus Christ! They covered their ears so they wouldn't hear anything else. The Bible tells us, "If you confess with your mouth 'Jesus is Lord' and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you shall be saved," but these people didn't want to hear anything about Jesus Christ. They hated the gospel.
"Yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him." These people concluded Stephen was a blasphemer who must be killed, so they rushed at him. If you study the Greek word for "rushed at him," you will find it used also in Luke 8:33, to describe how the legions of demons went into the pigs and caused them to rush into the lake and drown. The members of the Sanhedrin were similarly demonized and rushed toward Stephen. Why do I say they were demonized? Because any time people oppose Jesus Christ, it demonstrates the activity of demons.
"They all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him." We don't know exactly how stoning was carried out in the first century, but we gain some understanding of from the Mishnah, the Jewish writings of the second century, as recorded in F. F. Bruce's commentary on Acts: "'The hand of the witnesses shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people': so ran the ancient law (Deut. 17:7). In the second century A.D. this was interpreted as follows in the Mishnah: 'When the trial is finished, the man convicted is brought out to be stoned. The stoning place was outside the court. . . When ten cubits from the stoning place, they say to him, "Confess: for it is the custom of all about to be put to death to make confession; and every one who confesses has a share in the world to come."'" What do you think Stephen and other early Christian martyrs were supposed to confess? That Jesus Christ is not Lord and God, but a blasphemer. Do you think Stephen confessed that? No.
What happened next? "Four cubits from the stoning place the criminal is stripped. . . The drop from the stoning place was twice the height of a man. One of the witnesses pushes the criminal from behind, so that he falls face downward. He is then turned over on his back. If he die from this fall, that is sufficient. If not, the second witness takes the stone and drops it on his heart. If this cause death that is sufficient; if not, he is stoned by all the congregation of Israel,'" until he is dead. (F. F. Bruce, Commentary on the Book of Acts, [Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1979] 170-1).
Stephen's words infuriated the Sanhedrin and they rushed out, covering their ears. They could not stand to hear any mention of the name of Jesus, let alone hear Stephen's declaration that he is Lord, that he has all authority in heaven and on earth, that he is the Son of Man, and that he is standing at the right hand of God, the place of honor. So they dragged Stephen out of the city and began to stone him, and verse 58 tells us, "Meanwhile the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul."
Stephen Sees Jesus
"While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, 'Lord Jesus, receive my spirit'" (Acts 7:59). Isn't that interesting? Stephen was being pelted by stones, but what was he doing? Praying. Some of us have a hard time getting out of bed in the morning to pray. Maybe if we were pelted by stones we would pray more. We are not like Jesus, who prayed from the cross; Paul and Silas, who prayed in the middle of the night while they were in the Philippian jail, or Stephen, who prayed while he was being stoned.
Why do you think Stephen was able to pray in these conditions? Because he was full of the Holy Spirit and saw Jesus standing on the right hand of God the Father in heaven.
Stephen saw Jesus standing. In other places in the New Testament we are told that Jesus ascended into heaven and is seated on the right hand of God the Father. Therefore, it is logical to ask, "Why is Jesus standing?" One answer is that he was standing to welcome Stephen home. "Come on, Stephen," the Lord was saying. "I will receive your spirit."
This word to Stephen should encourage us also. We will all face death if the Lord tarries. My prayer is that we, like Stephen, will be filled with the Spirit so that we will see heaven opened and the glory of God and the Lord Jesus Christ, our great high priest who sympathizes with us, standing and telling us, "Come on in. Welcome home!"
Another possible reason Stephen saw Jesus standing is that while Stephen was witnessing and confessing Jesus Christ before men, Jesus was confessing him before the Father. As Christians we have two intercessors: the Holy Spirit on earth and the Lord Jesus Christ in heaven. In Matthew 10:32 we read, "Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven." Perhaps Jesus was saying, "As Stephen confesses my name before the Sanhedrin, I will confess his name before the Father."
Thus, even as he was being pelted by stones Stephen could pray, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." Jesus Christ himself prayed that prayer from the cross, but he did so to God the Father. Stephen prayed to Jesus because Jesus Christ is God. "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit."
We must note one more thing about the state of mind of this great preacher. Stephen prayed, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." Again, he was following the example of the Lord Jesus Christ. So Stephen knew how to pray at all times in all situations, even while he was being killed, because he was energized by the Spirit of God.
The Sleep of Death
Then we are told, "When he had said this, he fell asleep." The Greek word for "fall asleep" is koimaomai, from which we get the word "cemetery."
If you are a Christian, you need not fear death. Death for a Christian is sleeping in Jesus, which tells us something about peaceful sleep. Don't you look forward to sleep when your work is done? In the same way, if we are born of God and full of the Holy Spirit, we will look forward to the sleep of death, as the apostle Paul did.
A Christian need not fear death because it is the beginning of a peaceful rest and the end of all pain. But beyond that, death for a Christian means instant entrance into the very presence of God. There is no soul sleep, purgatory or any other intermediate state. If you are a Christian, the moment you die you will be ushered into the very presence of God by God's holy angels, and the Lord Jesus Christ will welcome you that you may commune with God forever. Didn't Jesus tell the thief on the cross, "Today you will be with me in paradise"? He said today--not seven years from now.
Knowing these things the apostle Paul wrote, "We are confident, I say, and would prefer to be away from the body and at home with the Lord" (2 Cor. 5:8) and "I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far. . ." (Phil. 1:23). And let me tell you, we will be conscious in heaven, as we read in Revelation 6:9-11. We will worship God in heaven, as we read in Hebrews 12, together with the church on earth. Isn't that wonderful? It will not be a life of inactivity. No, it will be an glorious life of great worship, praise, and fellowship with God!
What can we learn from this passage? First, we must note the hardness of heart of the Sanhedrin and their refusal to repent. The members of this Sanhedrin heard the gospel from Jesus, from Peter and John, from all the apostles, and from Stephen. They saw the glory of God on Stephen's face. They heard Stephen say, "Behold, the glory of God and Jesus standing on the right hand of God." Yet they did not repent. Yes, they were cut into two and gnashed their teeth, but they did not repent. Their hearts were hardened, which means they were experiencing divine judgment.
Let me ask you: Have you repented of your sins and trusted in Jesus Christ? Or are you still in your unbelief? If so, you are in serious danger. As Jonathan Edwards said, you are a sinner in the hand of an angry God. You must think about these things because soon you will die and then comes the judgment. There is a heaven and a hell, and what we do when we are alive determines our destination. Therefore, I urge you to repent and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved.
Second, if you are a Christian, are you a witness to Jesus Christ in your generation as Stephen was? Here was a man who was unashamed, bold, and powerful. What does that tell us? That Stephen was truly converted. He did not merely confess with his mouth that Jesus is Lord; he also believed it in his heart. God worked mightily in Stephen, regenerating him and making him a true Christian. A true Christian cannot but proclaim the Lord Jesus Christ.
Third, are you full of the Holy Spirit? That is not a privilege just for Stephen; it is a privilege for us too. In Ephesians 5:18 Paul tells us, "Be filled with the Spirit," or in the Greek, "be being filled," meaning coming under his complete control and power. Full of the Holy Spirit!
Fourth, are you full of wisdom? Do you understand God's truth enough to give an answer to anyone who asks concerning the hope that is within you as this man did? Have you engaged in serious study of the Scripture so that you can set forth the heart of the gospel? That is what it means to be full of wisdom.
Fifth, are you full of power as Stephen was? Stephen got his power from the Holy Spirit. He became bold and powerful, unafraid to share the gospel.
Sixth, are you full of faith? Do you have total trust in Jesus Christ? Full saving faith is putting yourself wholly into the hands of God Almighty. When you do that, you will be taken care of. You will be guided, you will be provided for, you will be held up, you will be strengthened, you will be delivered, and nothing in all creation will be able to separate you from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus.
Seventh, are you full of grace? Grace is the smile of God upon us. It is God's favor that flows from the cross to us. Jesus Christ is full of grace and truth, and from his fullness we receive grace upon grace upon grace. Someone recently asked me, "Pastor, pray that I may receive grace." "Sister," I said, "you pray. He will give you grace." Can you imagine praying for grace and God not giving it to you? God gives grace to the humble. The question is not whether God will give grace but if you are ready to receive it. Are you ready to humble yourself so that you can receive God's grace? There is a God who is always extending his hand to give us grace.
Eighth, are you full of the knowledge of God? Stephen was full of the knowledge of the Scriptures and God, as we see when we read his sermon. He had an amazing ability to understand the whole Bible and condense it.
Ninth, are you willing to become a fool for Christ? Stephen was. We know that every person who is outside of Christ is the real fool because he says there is no God, but in the world's eyes, we are fools. Are you ready to be a fool for Christ?
Tenth, are you ready to die for your faith and be a martyr? Are you better than the modern Palestinians who eagerly and willingly give their lives for falsehood? They are manipulated by leaders who themselves don't want to go and die in the streets of Tel Aviv so they recruit naive and gullible young people by promising them entrance into paradise if they go and self-destruct. Are we willing to die for the gospel of Jesus Christ?
The Purpose of Stephen's Martyrdom
Finally, you may wonder what purpose there was in Stephen's martyrdom. Yes, he preached a good sermon, but then he was killed. What was the purpose of it all?
Luke mentions there was a young man named Saul who was present, watching over the garments of those who were throwing stones at Stephen. Although he was young, Saul was an official of the Sanhedrin. He had heard Stephen's sermon and seen the glory of God in the face of Stephen. He had probably argued with Stephen in the synagogue of the Libertines and been among those who were not able to refute Stephen's arguments. But God was working in Saul's heart. In due course, God arrested Saul of Tarsus and saved him. He became known as the apostle Paul, and through him the gospel went out into all the world.
Although he did not know it at the time, Stephen was serving as a mentor for Paul in his faithful witness to Christ. We forget that Paul was influenced by Stephen's great address to the Sanhedrin and his death, but Paul never forgot it. Much later in his life, when he was about to be arrested in Jerusalem for preaching the gospel, he mentioned that long-ago day. Speaking of his conversion, Paul said, "When I returned to Jerusalem and was praying at the temple, I. . . saw the Lord speaking. 'Quick!' he said to me. 'Leave Jerusalem immediately, because they will not accept your testimony about me.' 'Lord,' I replied, 'these men know that I went from one synagogue to another to imprison and beat those who believe in you. And when the blood of your martyr Stephen was shed, I stood there giving my approval and guarding the clothes of those who were killing him.'" Paul never forgot the witness of Stephen.
We never know how God will use us. The other day someone told me that he had shared the gospel with a bank officer many years ago. Some time later the bank officer became a Christian and is now enrolled in a seminary, studying to become a minister.
I urge you, therefore, keep preaching the gospel. Be filled with the Holy Spirit, filled with wisdom, filled with power, filled with faith, filled with grace, and continue to share the word of God unashamedly with everyone you meet. Tell people that there is a heaven and a hell. Let them know there is a Lord Jesus Christ who has received all authority in heaven and on earth and there is no salvation outside of him. Tell them that Christ and Christ alone died on the cross and removed the wrath of God that was against us by receiving its full impact on himself. Tell them that this same Jesus Christ offers us his salvation by grace and urge them to receive it. Then pray that God's Holy Spirit will open people's eyes to see hell as well as heaven so that they may cry out to God, saying, "God, have mercy upon me, a sinner!" and trust in Jesus Christ alone and be saved.
I pray that God will help us to be martyrs for Jesus Christ. May we believe the gospel and declare it, even at the cost of our own death. May we take comfort in knowing that death is falling asleep in the Lord and coming into the very presence of God as we are welcomed by the Lord Jesus Christ himself. Even now may the Spirit of the living God fall upon us and grant us faith, power, grace, and wisdom, and make us witnesses of God's saving grace. Amen.
Copyright © 1998, P. G. Mathew
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