The Death of Stephen Acts 7

This week the terrorism threat level for the United Kingdom was raised to severe, the highest level since 2011. This is in response to the activity of militant extremists in Iraq and Syria who have massacred thousands and driven hundreds of thousands of people from their homes this year. It is very important we do not forget that hundreds of the men, women and children who have been murdered were Iraqi Christians, killed simply for being Christians. They were not the first Christians to die for their faith, and they will not be the last. This week we look at the story of the very first Christian martyr, one of the first Deacons in the Early Church, Stephen.
Acts 6 8 Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people. 9 Opposition arose, however, from members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called)—Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia. These men began to argue with Stephen, 10 but they could not stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by whom he spoke.
11 Then they secretly persuaded some men to say, “We have heard Stephen speak words of blasphemy against Moses and against God.”
12 So they stirred up the people and the elders and the teachers of the law. They seized Stephen and brought him before the Sanhedrin.
History tells us the sad truth that Christians have always been the targets of opposition and persecution and even murder. When God is at work and people are being saved, the devil always hits back. People turn against Christians and since there are no sensible reasons to oppose them they will invent false evidence to stir up trouble against them.
By the time Luke wrote the Book of Acts between 70 and 80 AD the Roman Emperor Nero had already massacred thousands of Christians and imprisoned many more a decade earlier. After the great fire of Rome in 64 AD Nero had blamed the Christians. Some were forced to become gladiators, others thrown to the lions. Some were crucified and others were set on fire to be torches in Nero’s garden. With the memories of such horrific ordeals fresh in their minds, Christians needed encouragement to stand firm in their faith. The account of the martyrdom of Stephen is one of the longest stories in Acts precisely because the first Christians needed to be prepared for the very real prospects of persecution in the years ahead.
There would soon be other martyrs. We read in Acts 12 how King Herod had James the brother of John put to death. All the apostles apart from John died for Christ. Peter was reputedly crucified upside-down. We read about Paul’s sufferings throughout 2 Corinthians. And many other Christians followed these first martyrs to death during the first three centuries of the church when they refused to bow down to different Roman Emperors. My favourite writer in that period was called Tertullian and around 200 AD he wrote this. “If the Tiber rises too high or the Nile too low the cry is always the same: “The Christians to the Lion!” What? All of them, to a single lion?”
Countless thousands of Christians were martyred in those centuries. But still they stood firm for Christ, and this faithfulness in the face of persecution became one of the most powerful factors contributing to the growth of the early church. Their deaths were their witness – and in fact the word martyr actually means witness – those who witness for Christ even up to death. So Tertullian also wrote these memorable words. “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”
As Baptist Christians we neglect the history of the church and particularly the martyrs. We don’t celebrate saints’ days and our buildings don’t contain the tombs of martyrs. But we should not forget that it was not only in the Early Church that Christians gave up their lives for Christ. In the sixteenth century many of the first Protestants were executed for their faith. In the seventeenth century in England our Baptist ancestors were persecuted by the state church. In the 1680s hundreds of Baptists were hanged and thousands were imprisoned or deported, just for being Baptists! And the twentieth century saw its share of martyrs too.
I have met Christians in Bulgaria whose relatives and friends had been murdered or imprisoned for being Christians. I have met other Christians in Uganda with relatives or friends who had been murdered or imprisoned during the tyranny of Idi Amin. And we must not forget that even as I speak in Iraq and Syria and Nigeria and many other places around the world there are Christians who are losing their freedom and even their lives because they have the courage to proclaim that Jesus Christ is Lord. Throughout history and even today the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church!
The sad truth is that ever since the Fall of Adam and Eve there have always been people who have rejected God and opposed His people. If you read through Acts chapter 7 you will find that Stephen’s speech to the Sanhedrin is remarkable because he does not once mention Jesus. Luke still includes that speech in full because it goes through the whole history of the nation of Israel to illustrate two simple points. The first is that people have always rejected God. Stephen talks about the way the Egyptians enslaved Abraham’s descendants for 400 years after Joseph was rejected by his brothers. He talks about how Moses was rejected by his fellow Israelites God used Moses to set His chosen people free but even as Moses was receiving the 10 Commandments on Mount Sinai the people rebelled and made for themselves a Golden Calf to worship. The second point is that despite all the times people have continued to reject Him, God in His love has always continued to offer salvation to His people through Abraham and Joseph and Moses and David and Solomon. Only at the end does Stephen begin to speak to the Sanhedrin about Jesus and this is what he has to say.
51 “You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit! 52 Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him.”

Jesus the Righteous One was only the last of the many prophets who had been rejected and betrayed and murdered over fifteen centuries! Stephen’s speech was simply illustrating from Jewish history the sad truth that God’s people in every generation can expect to face opposition and even death for God’s sake.

I am sure that Stephen knew how the Sanhedrin would react to his words – but he was brave enough to speak out all the same. What happened next was inevitable!

54 When they heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. 55 But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
57 At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, 58 dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul.

Even as he was being murdered, Stephen saw a vision of the Risen Jesus Christ waiting to welcome him into heaven. So Stephen’s death is recorded to give inspiration to Christians in every generation who would be called to follow his in martyrdom.

59 While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep.

And here is the challenge for every Christian. Would we also be prepared to die for Christ? Jesus gave up His life for us. Would we be willing to give up our lives for Him?
God may not call us to be martyrs. But the death of Stephen is also recorded to encourage all of us as we face our own immortality. Death – the ultimate statistic – one out of one die. Some Christians have lost sight of our Christian hope and the happy certainty of heaven. Some Christians are trapped in the worldly view of death as the last enemy, the destroyer and the end of all hope. They have forgotten the victory of Christ’s resurrection life which He shares with all who believe in Him. Before Easter in our evening services we thought about what the apostle Paul wrote to the Philippians/

Philippians 1:20 I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. 21 For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. 22 If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! 23 I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; 24 but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.

For me to live Christ. to die is gain. To die is gain. The great evangelist Moody once said, “One day they’ll tell you Moody is dead. But don’t you believe it! On that day. I’ll be more alive than I’ve ever been!”
Death is not a loss, but a gain. It is an enormous loss for those family and friends who are left behind. But when a Christian believer dies, for them it is a gain. We gain a perfect life, a life freed from the limitations and imperfections of our mortality. A life without death or mourning or crying or pain. (Revelation 21) We gain life in all its fullness, eternal life, an incredible life and a glorious future.
If for me to live is money, then to die is a loss. If for me to live is pleasure, then to die is a loss. If for me to live is self, then to die is a loss. If for me to live is ambition, then to die is a loss. If for me to live is sin, then to die is a loss. If for me to live is worldliness, then to die is a loss. But if for me to live is Christ, then to die is gain.
Truly this is a WIN-WIN situation!!! There’s no way to lose! Living this life in communion with Jesus Christ is wonderful, but to die and go to be with Christ and see Him face to face will be even more glorious! Either way, we win! “To die is gain.” Eternal life in an eternal home in glory.
Jesus promised, “In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. (John 14:2-3)
See how Stephen’s final words of testimony are proof for us that we can confidently trust this promise Jesus made. 56 “Look,” Stephen said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
The apostle Paul wanted to exalt Christ by life, or by death. “I desire to depart and be with Christ,” says Paul, “which is better by far.” “To depart and be with Christ.” We usually focus on what we are leaving behind, but Paul is thinking about where He is going and what he is going to and Who he is going to be with. Paul longed to depart and be with Christ – but do we? Woody Allen said, “I’m not afraid of dying. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” We need to face our fear of death.

“To be with Christ, which is better by far.” This is our Christian hope. The “happy certainty” of heaven. Sometimes we use the word “hope” in a vague wishy-washy kind of way. In contrast, in the Bible the word “hope” is always definite and certain! So we do better to translate the word “hope” as “happy certainty.” Death is simply the doorway through which we must pass to enter into the immediate presence of the Lord we love and Who loves us. For Christians, death is not a hopeless end but an endless hope. Jim Packer wrote that death is not an end but a beginning, not an exit but an entrance. “Death is a door to more, not less, a plus not a minus, an increase not a decrease, a filling not an emptying.” Death is not extinguishing the light from the Christian. It is putting out the lamp because the bright new glorious dawn has come. Death is not a journey to an unknown land but a voyage home, to our Father’s house and to our forever family. When we die, we are simply called home! To use a wonderful Salvation Army phrase, we are “promoted to glory.”
We might rightly say, “They’ve gone to a better place.” Heaven is a place of rest, a place of reward, a place of rejoicing, a place of resurrection, a place of reunion with our loved ones and especially in the presence of Christ Himself. A place of resurrection! A place with no more sickness, no more pain, no more crying, no more dying, no more mourning. “With Christ, which is better by far!” That is the heart of the Christian hope – the certainty that spending eternity with Jesus in glory will be so much better than even the best of life here on earth. A better life. A better home. A better place. To die is gain. To be with Christ, which is better by far. THIS is our Christian hope!
On holiday I saw a T-shirt with a wonderfully inspiring slogan! “IAF.” Underneath it spelled out the words. IAF. “I AM FOREVER.” Turns out that is the name of a rock band from Somerset but I think it is definitely a slogan any Christian could boldly proclaim. “I AM FOREVER.” Whatever the world may throw at me. However hard it gets to follow Christ, however much it costs. I AM FOREVER. The story of the death of Stephen reminds us that we may face opposition, persecution, even death for the sake of Jesus Christ. But in it all, each of us can say, as Stephen believed, “I AM FOREVER!”
55 Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.
59 While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep.

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