The Holy Spirit strengthens our faith
through any situation
Acts 7:54-60 | The Stoning of Stephen
The gospel preaching of the apostles and other members of the Christian fellowship in Jerusalem had increasingly inflamed the authorities and there was now a concerted effort to put a stop to it. The group worshipped in the temple; shared their meals in common and observed the Lord’s Supper from house to house; and shared with each other their material possessions as they had need. For a time, the Apostles peacefully co-existed with the Jews, but conflicts arose when the Peter and John were used by the Holy Spirit to heal a 40-year-old man who had been cripple. The Sanhedrin, the same council that asked Pilate to crucify Jesus for blasphemy, brought Peter and John before their council and commanded them not to preach in the name of Jesus.
Charges had been brought against Stephen and false witnesses organized, so he was in a precarious position. Stephen sets out to answer the charges by exposing Israel's failure to understand God's intentions as revealed in scripture. By surveying Israel's history Stephen reveals how Israel has failed to understand the function of the law and the temple, and thus how Israel now stands condemned. It is his announcement of Israel's murder of the messiah that prompts the lynch-mob into action.
Stephen's claim that God does not dwell in buildings made by human hands is not well received, but when he finally announced that he could see God in his heavenly dwelling-place, and that he could see the Son of Man, Jesus, standing at the right hand of the Father, then, at that point, the crowd goes ballistic. The issue concerns the dwelling-place of God (in the heavenlies and in creation, but not in the temple) and the unique character of God (devalued by the status accorded to Jesus as the Son of Man standing beside God). Although Stephen's words prompt a charge of blasphemy, there is no legal process whereby this change can be laid and answered. A lynch-mob takes over, possibly approved by the authorities on the ground that Stephen has defamed the temple. In all this, "Saul approved of their killing him"
After much persecution, which included imprisonments and beatings, the community of faith continued in prayer and continued to grow. This growth led to the church choosing 7 deacons to serve meals to the Greek widows. But the scriptures tell us these deacons where filled with the Holy Spirit, and some of them because great witnesses for the faith. Stephen was one of these deacons. Stephen was not ashamed to share his faith with others. The Bible even says that the Holy Spirit, though him and the apostles, worked great wonders and miraculous signs among the people. When opposition arose Stephen was seized and taken before the Sanhedrin. In response to their questions about whether he was guilty of blasphemy, Stephen preached an eloquent Gospel sermon. He, like Peter in his first Gospel sermon, took his audience back to what they already knew.
He told them about Abraham and God, the Patriarchs, Moses and the Law, and how their ancestors had tried God in the wilderness. They were with him until he got to the part about the fact that God had sent Jesus to be the Righteous One and they had rejected Jesus, not only the savior and redeemer of Israel, but of the entire world; and had him killed by handed Jesus over to the Romans to die on the cross.
That brings us to our scripture. When they heard these words they were furious and acted just like little children who did not want to listen to someone. The response of the Sanhedrin was immediate and violent. They quickly saw the theological implications of Stephen’s doctrine—Israel was guilty; the Law was temporary; the temple must be done away—so they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. To them his words were blasphemy, punishable by death (Lev. 24:16).
This council killing Stephen is ironic because their forefathers, having worshiped the gods of the Canaanites (Acts 7:43), should have been put to death, according to Moses (Lev. 20:2). But they could not see, or chose not to see the guilt of their fore parents, nor did they choose to see their own guilt!
Although he was being stoned, Stephen was not intimidated, for he was full of the Holy Spirit (cf. 6:3, 5, 10), saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God to welcome him home. In words reminiscent of Jesus, Stephen committed his spirit to the Lord and prayed for his enemies (cf. Luke 23:34, 46).
In the King James Version Luke recorded the fact of his death by simply writing, he fell asleep. For a Christian, one’s body (not soul) sleeps in death (cf. John 11:11; 1 Thes. 4:13, 15). You wonder what kind of a world we live in when good and godly people like Stephen can be murdered by religious bigots! But we have similar problems in our “enlightened” age today: taking hostages, bombings that kill or maim innocent people, assassinations, and all in the name of politics or religion. The heart of humans has not changed, nor can it be changed apart from the grace of God.
You might be thinking what a waste of such a promising Christian life! But when we live our lives for our faith, it is never wasted. Let’s examine the results of Stephen’s death. For Stephen, death meant coronation (Rev. 2:10). He saw the glory of God and the Son of God standing to receive him to heaven (see Luke 22:69). The scriptures tell that Jesus sat down when He ascended to heaven (Ps. 110:1; Mark 16:19), but He stood up to welcome to glory the first Christian martyr (Luke 12:8). Stephen used Jesus’ title “Son of man” to witness that Jesus is indeed Israel’s Messiah.
Stephen's final words, v55-56. As far as Luke is concerned, Stephen does actually see a vision. It is the fulfillment of Jesus' words in Mark 14:62, where he says "you will see the Son of man seated at the right hand of the Almighty, and coming with the clouds of heaven." The "one like unto the Son of Man" is prophesied by Daniel, Dan.7:13f. He comes to the Ancient of Days and receives an everlasting kingdom. He is also spoken of in the Psalms, Ps.110, where he approaches the throne of God and is invited to sit at his right hand - a position of rule and authority. This then is Stephen's vision. Jesus has entered the throne-room of the living God and received eternal rule and authority.
Therefore, the new age of eternity has begun and "all peoples, nations and languages should serve him." By implication, the exclusive Temple-worship of the Jews is now redundant. Note how Luke has Jesus standing at God's right hand, rather than sitting. Is Jesus standing to welcome Stephen the martyr, or is he standing as advocate before God on Stephen's behalf? In the end, we don't know, but the image is an interesting one.
Stephen was not only tried in a manner similar to that of our Lord, but he also died with similar prayers on his lips (Luke 23:34, 46; Acts 7:59–60). A story is told of a heckler who once shouted to a street preacher, “Why didn’t God do something for Stephen when they were stoning him?” The preacher replied, “God did do something for Stephen. He gave him the grace to forgive his murderers and to pray for them!”
For Israel, Stephen’s death meant condemnation. This was their third murder: they had permitted John the Baptist to be killed; they had asked for Jesus to be killed; and now they were killing Stephen themselves. When they allowed Herod to kill John, the Jews sinned against God the Father who had sent John (Matt. 21:28–32). When they asked Pilate to crucify Jesus, they sinned against God the Son (Matt. 21:33–46). When they stoned Stephen, Israel sinned against the Holy Spirit who was working in and through the Apostles (Matt. 10:1–8; Acts 7:51).
The fact that Stephen’s opponents “cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him” (Acts 7:57) as soon as he had spoken about Jesus standing at the right hand of God shows that they understood the christological import of Stephen’s description of Jesus. In sum, Jesus standing at the right hand of the Father in Acts 7:55–56 conveys that Jesus is the Messiah (in fulfillment of Ps 110), and the Son of Man (in fulfillment of Dan 7), who has the authority to execute judgment on behalf of God and his people. Viewed in the context of Stephen's speech, it is as if Jesus is standing to confirm the veracity of the accusation that Stephen had brought against the nation of Israel, and to indicate that he is the Son of Man of Dan 7 who will judge those who persecute “the saints of the Most High” (Dan 7:27). Stephen's death, like that of the prophets and the Righteous One before him (Acts 7:52), would not be in vain.
It is also significant that Stephen’s reporting of the vision of Jesus standing in heaven creates a parallel with Dan 7:13, where one like the son of man comes into the presence of the Ancient of Days, and is presented before him. It is most natural that this son of man would have been standing before God during his presentation. So the idea of Jesus standing as mentioned by Stephen seems to allude to Dan 7:13. This allusion functions as a bold presentation by Stephen of the Christian claim in the polemical context of the time. The claim was that Jesus of Nazareth is the Son of Man in fulfillment of Dan 7. In addition, the conceptual parallel between the giving of the kingdom to this son of man in Dan 7:14 and the giving of the kingdom to “the saints of the Most High” in Dan 7:27 brings the courtroom scene of Dan 7:26 (where the power of the evil little horn is taken away) into the picture.
Jesus said that sinning against the Holy Spirit was unforgivable (Matt. 12:31–32). Biblical historians say judgment finally came in A.D. 70 when Titus and the Roman armies destroyed Jerusalem and the temple. For the church in Jerusalem, the death of Stephen meant liberation. They had been witnessing “to the Jew first” ever since Pentecost, but now they would be directed to take the message out of Jerusalem to the Samaritans (Acts 8) and even to the Gentiles (Acts 11:19–26). The opposition of the enemy helped prevent the church from becoming a Jewish “sect” and encouraged them to fulfill the commission of Acts 1:8 and Matthew 28:18–20.
Finally, as far as Saul (Acts 7:58) was concerned, the death of Stephen eventually meant salvation. He never forgot the event (Acts 22:17–21), and no doubt Stephen’s message, prayers, and glorious death were used of the Spirit to prepare Saul for his own meeting with the Lord (Acts 9). It is said that God never wastes the blood of His saints. Saul would one day see the same glory that Stephen saw and would behold the Son of God and hear Him speak!
When Christians die, they “fall asleep” (John 11:11; 1 Thes. 4:13). The body sleeps and the spirit goes to be with the Lord in heaven (Acts 7:59; 2 Cor. 5:6–9; Phil. 1:23; Heb. 12:22–23). When Jesus returns, He will bring with Him the spirits of those who have died (1 Thes. 4:14), their bodies will be raised and glorified, and body and spirit will be united in glory to be “forever with the Lord.” Even though we Christians weep at the death of a loved one (Acts 8:2), we do not sorrow hopelessly; for we know we shall meet again when we die or when the Lord returns.
God does not call all of us to be martyrs, but He does call us to be “living sacrifices” (Rom. 12:1–2). In some respects, it may be harder to live for Christ than to die for Him; but if we are living for Him, we will be prepared to die for Him if that is what God calls us to do.
Jesus said no one except God knows the time of the Second Coming. But we know we can we ready. “Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life” (Rev. 2:10). However, those of us who have placed our faith in Jesus have a great hope. All the prophets and all of our Scriptures point us to this. Stephen was willing and able to stand for his faith because he knew the Resurrected Lord. I pray that if you have not yet put your hope in Jesus, you will do so today.
Faith and forgiveness
Jesus mentions the death of the godly prophet Zechariah, the son of Jehoiada, who was put to death in the temple court, "between the altar and the sanctuary", Lk.11:51. On his death he prayed, "May the Lord see this and call you to account", 2Chron.24:22.
Stephen dies the death of the true martyr. In his dying he displays two essential qualities that should be evident in the Christian life:
In his mind’s eye Stephen places Jesus at the right hand of the living God, ruling with power and authority. He is King of Kings and Lord of Lords. He is therefore well able to save. Yet of greater importance, Stephen sees Jesus standing, welcoming him, or possibly even pleading for him. He is therefore, able to say "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." Stephen sees himself as a beneficiary of God's mercy. The "obedience that consists of faith", which obedience saves us, entails a reliance on the mercy of God for salvation. We rest secure in Jesus who loves us.
Christ's cry to the Father from the cross for the forgiveness of his persecutors, seems well beyond the capacity of mere humanity, but Stephen utters the same prayer. He is a man bathed in the mercy of God, which mercy makes him merciful. Of course, his prayer doesn't save his persecutors, but it does serve to remind them that their crime will not be held against them if they repent. Christ's law for disciples transcends the nature of law. Moral law exposes sin, making sin more sinful. Christ's law of love, of forgiveness and mercy, shapes within us the very character of God. His mercy compels us to be merciful.
Have you ever thought about what you are willing to do for your faith? Are you willing to be witness to what you know about what God has done for us through Jesus? Are you willing to be witness to what God has done in your life?
Are you willing to be misunderstood or criticized? Are you willing to have your life in danger for your faith? In our scripture today Stephen had to answer the question, what will I do for my faith. To understand Stephen’s situation, we must review other scriptures. Remember, Peter and the Apostles had received the Holy Spirit and were empowered to witnesses in languages that the pilgrims to Jerusalem were able to understand. 3,000 Jews accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior and were baptized.