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"A Martyr is Minted!"

MESSAGE FOR JULY 4, 2010 FROM ACTS 7:54 - 8:1

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It’s fitting that we look at Stephen on this day when our nation celebrates its freedom from tyranny and the founding fathers who fought for it.  At the cost of his own life, Stephen spoke out against a spiritual tyranny imposed by a dead religion that had enslaved so many in the name of God.  As we saw last week, Stephen had testified of Jesus Christ and specifically to how he fulfilled the purpose of both the Jewish temple and the Law.  By implication, he was calling on the Jews to radically alter their understanding of those two institutions.  The Jews and the Jewish leadership before whom Stephen testified didn’t believe that Jesus Christ had changed anything, except the minds of a growing number of gullible Jews whose conversions to Christ were becoming increasingly troublesome to them.  Before we begin our text this morning, let’s remember the context for the martyrdom of Stephen by reading the concluding charges he makes against the Jews as he closes his message before the Jewish leadership.

          He said to them, “51 “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. 52 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, 53 you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.”  As we saw last week, this was a summary that pulled all the threads of his message together in a final, bold stroke against the Jewish leadership.  Our text for this morning follows as Luke writes of the Jewish leaders, “54 Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him. 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. 56 And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” 57 But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. 58 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. 59 And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 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. 1 And Saul approved of his execution…

          In this account, Luke again provides for us an inspiring example to follow in the death of Stephen.  At first blush, we may wonder what profit there is in studying Stephen’s violent death and martyrdom for us who live in a land founded on religious liberty.  Two reasons come to mind.  First, although this nation was founded on the principle of religious liberty, you don’t have to be a prophet to see that those liberties are rapidly eroding and opposition to Christ is increasing exponentially.  The time may not be too far way when, as in other countries, if you live as a faithful witness for Christ, it will cost you your freedom and perhaps your life.  Praise God we are not in that place just yet.  Second, the lessons we can learn from Stephen in his martyrdom couldn’t be more practical for us because Christ calls all of his followers to a life of martyrdom in the sense that to be a Christian is to be a person who is ready to surrender our life for Jesus at any moment and we must die a certain kind of death on a regular basis. 

Jesus says in Luke 9:23 “…If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”  The cross that we must take up daily is a lethal instrument.  It kills the self. That is, it kills our selfish wants and desires.  This instrument of death comes as standard equipment with every newly minted believer.  Some believers in different lands and cultures are even now placed in positions where, if they are faithful to Christ, they will die--not only to their self, but physically die.  The New Testament repeatedly teaches that to live as a witness always requires a death.  In our culture to die physically as a witness for Christ is very rare, but to live as a faithful witness to Christ always requires a death to self.  Being a faithful witness to Christ means that we must die to our desires to be comfortable or popular or highly esteemed.  We risk those earthly treasures every time we speak openly about Christ and the gospel.  It’s surely no accident that in the Greek language of the New Testament the word translated “witness” is martus from which we get our word “martyr.”  That’s not a coincidence.  To be a witness is to die—to ourselves—if not to our physical lives.  That means that studying the martyrdom of Stephen couldn’t be more helpful for the sincere believer.

As we look at this text, we can find at least three of the characteristics of a God-honoring martyr/witness.  I say “God honoring martyr” because there are those in church history and even today who die for their faith, but not in ways that honor Christ.  They die as unloving, self-righteous Pharisees.  And the Muslims have plenty of martyrs and not one of them honors God.  As we look at Stephen’s martyrdom, let’s zero in on these three essential characteristics necessary for a believer to live as a faithful, death-embracing witness for Christ.  The first one we have looked at before.  The first necessary characteristic of a God-honoring martyr/witness is a life that is supernaturally empowered.  Luke makes a point of repeatedly emphasizing that those who ministered for Christ, whether apostles or not, did so in the power of the Holy Spirit.

We see this of Stephen here in verse 55 where Luke says, “55 But he, full of the Holy Spirit…”  The verse literally translated would read, “But being filled with the Holy Spirit…”  The word translated “being” means here “to be present—at one’s disposal.”[1]  In other words, the Holy Spirit was regularly at Stephen’s disposal.  He was habitually under the controlling influence of the Holy Spirit to do whatever would honor God.  When he was initially arrested and seized, he was full of the Holy Spirit.  As his trial began, He didn’t have to come to God and say, “Lord, I’ve been preaching in my own strength up to this point, but now I’m in over my head with all these members of the Sanhedrin looking on.  Quick, Lord, fill me with the Spirit.  That’s not to say that God in his grace couldn’t do that, but that’s not what we are called to and that is not what Luke says was happening here.  This wasn’t just some ad hoc episode of supernatural empowering, as if the Spirit dramatically swoops down upon Stephen and dynamically recharges his spiritual battery.  Stephen lived a comprehensively Spirit-filled life.  Therefore, when he was arrested, he was able to respond to those who opposed him in the power of the Holy Spirit.  We know that Stephen was regularly living a life under the controlling influence of the Holy Spirit because one of the qualifications for the seven—of which he was a part—is recorded by Luke in 6:3-5.  There the apostles tell the church, “3… brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty.”  In verse five Luke continues, “… and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit…”  Luke wants us to know that Stephen habitually lived under the controlling influence of the Holy Spirit.

Believers must live spiritually empowered lives at all times.  That is--depending upon God to give us the supernatural enablement to live faithful lives for Jesus.  It’s not as if we only need divine enablement for the “spiritual things” like preaching and teaching and witnessing.  That may be when we FEEL our need most clearly, but we just as surely need to be under the Spirit’s influence when we parent our children or work in our jobs.  We need the Spirit’s influence to keep our thoughts and attitudes in check.  We are called to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves”—ALL the time!  What part of that doesn’t require divine empowerment?  We must live in the humble dependence upon the Holy Spirit’s control at all times.  That way when, out of the blue, we are confronted with a chance to witness for Christ; we will already be walking under the Spirit’s control.  We mustn’t think of the Holy Spirit as a drinking fountain we can access when we feel thirsty.  He’s more like an I.V. to which we should always be connected as he constantly hydrates our lives with Living Water.

One reason Luke inserts this truth about Stephen being filled with the Holy Spirit is to emphasize the contrast between Stephen, who is as cool as the proverbial cucumber here in the face of death, and the Jewish religious leadership.  Listen to verse 54. “54 Now when they[the leaders] heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him. 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.  The Jewish leaders are clearly out of control here.  They are so enraged with Stephen, they grind their teeth at him—that’s a sign of murderous anger.  BUT—Luke wants us to see the contrast between people who are out of control—or, under the control of their sinful flesh and Stephen, who is under the controlling influence of the Holy Spirit.  The point for us is simple. 

Do we regularly seek to be under the controlling influence of the Holy Spirit?  That means keeping a short account of our sins, spending healthy time reading, thinking, meditating and memorizing the Holy Spirit-inspired Bible to keep our minds renewed and above all—looking humbly to God—declaring that we are in no way able to live as a follower of Jesus apart from the controlling influence of the Holy Spirit.  James 4:6 says,  
“…God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.”  Often, the grace he gives is in the form of the ministry of the Spirit.  Apart from the supernatural empowering of God, no one dies as a God-honoring martyr—whether an actual, physically dead martyr or as a witness/martyr who is denying themselves through the cross. We must never forget that.  The first necessary characteristic of a God-honoring martyr/witness is a life that is supernaturally empowered.

A second essential characteristic of a God-honoring martyr/witness is a willingness to witness at all cost.  We mustn’t see this as--in addition to the filling of the Holy Spirit, but this is part of his influence in us as we seek his guidance and empowerment.  In the final scene in Stephen’s life, we once again see his incredible boldness that marks him as a martyr.  Last week, we saw just how offensive to the Jews were the truths Stephen uttered about Christ’s impact on the Law and the temple.  If after saying those things, he had even a whisper of a hope of escaping with his life, his final words absolutely seal his fate.  What sent these leaders into utter rage was Stephen’s recounting of this heavenly vision. Verse 56 says, “And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.  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.  This absolutely seals Stephen’s fate because it’s in response to this statement that he is charged with blasphemy.  You may not have seen that in the text, but we see it two ways.  First, the leaders cry out so as not to be able to hear about the vision and second, they stop their ears.  Those are two indicators that the Jews believed Stephen was speaking blasphemy.  Jewish historians tell us that Jews did these things when they thought something blasphemous was being uttered because they believed that blasphemous words could enter into them through their ears and defile their souls.[2] At other times, they would rip the hem of their garments to indicate that blasphemy had been spoken.  They did that when Jesus was on trial.

The question is--what would the Jews have considered to be blasphemous about Stephen’s testimony of what he saw in heaven?  First, he reports seeing Jesus standing at the right hand of God, which meant that Stephen was putting him on equal footing with God.  This is precisely what the Jews found blasphemous about Jesus in his trial.  In Mark 14:61 we read, “…the high priest asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” 62 And Jesus said, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.” 63 And the high priest tore his garments and said, “What further witnesses do we need? 64 You have heard his blasphemy. What is your decision?” And they all condemned him as deserving death.  At this point, the council must stone Stephen because they had Jesus crucified for making the same claim.  If they weren’t going to accept from Jesus that he belonged at God’s right hand, they certainly wouldn’t accept it from Stephen.

What made both Stephen’s and Jesus’ claim all the more galling to these Jews was their use of the title “Son of Man” for Jesus.  This was Jesus’ favorite designation for himself, especially late in his ministry. It was taken from a prophecy in Daniel chapter seven. Daniel records, 13 “I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. 14 And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.  According to the Jewish understanding of that prophecy, the son of man would come and vindicate the righteous—those who were Jews--against their oppressors—the nations.[3]  So here Stephen says that he sees the Son of Man appearing to him in heaven on his behalf.  That means by implication that Stephen is being vindicated as righteous and the Jewish leaders were in the place of the rebellious Gentile nations.  This was more than the proud Jewish leaders could take.

          It would have taken enormous boldness to say this, but Stephen is a faithful witness and faithful witnesses are more concerned about testifying to what they have seen, than avoiding the painful consequences that will come from their faithful report.  The burden of a faithful witness is to get the report right—NOT, avoiding the consequences their report will bring.  As witnesses, we must ask ourselves this question, “Am I driven in my witness more by a burden to tell people what I have seen and what I know of Jesus—or, am I driven more by the fear of the consequences for telling what I have seen and know?”  If we are not driven more by a passion to tell what we see and know, then by a desire to avoid negative consequences, we do not have this essential characteristic of a faithful martyr/witness.  A third and final characteristic of a God-honoring witness is a Christ-inspired fearlessness. 

The reason Stephen knew no fear in the midst of this is Jesus Christ.  We have seen that the Holy Spirit manifested Christ in him, but I see three more ways Christ inspires Stephen to face his own violent death without fear.  Stephen’s complete absence of fear is astonishing when you consider what he was facing.  It says, “they cast him out of the city and stoned him.”  Even though this may seem like a mob scene (and it surely resembled one) some of what the Jews did here was done in compliance with their regulations.  The Jewish regulations at this time stipulated that before you could stone someone—killing them with stones, you had to take them out of the holy city.  You don’t want to defile Jerusalem with the blood of a blasphemer.  Further, their rules specified that after you take the victim out to the edge of the city, “he is to be thrown over a drop at least twice the man’s height.  The witnesses [It says in verse 58 that” the witnesses laid down their garments”] would be the first to hurl large stones on top of him, aiming for his chest…till the victim died.”[4]  That sounds like it might be inspire a bit of fear in me.  Yet, Stephen is without any noticeable fear.  This also means that Stephen is almost certainly lying on his back after a nasty fall when he calls out, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” and “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” 

He faces this without any discernable fear because of the three ways in which Christ inspired him to fearlessness.  First, we see Stephen was fearless because he knew Christ was present.  The presence of Christ is powerfully manifest here—Stephen actually sees him.  We should never denigrate the importance of the presence of Christ in times of great peril and affliction, because in the Bible the promise of God’s presence is repeated more than perhaps any other grace as an antidote to fear.  In the Bible God tells people 11 times not to fear specifically because of this truth--“I will be with you.”  That truth is alluded to as an antidote to fear many more times than that.  God tells this to Isaac.  He assures Jacob of this, He says this to Moses, to Joshua three times, to Gideon, to Solomon, to Israel through Isaiah and to the apostles.  It’s abundantly clear from the Bible that God intends the promise that “he will be with you” to keep us from fear. “When you pass through the waters, I will be with you.  As Jesus concludes his command in the Great Commission he says, “And behold”—that is—Listen up—this is important—“I am with you always, to the end of the age.”  We are clearly to draw inspiration over our fears from the promise that Christ will be with us. Do we believe that?  Do we claim that promise when we are fearful of opening our mouths to someone about Jesus.  I can say this because—he is with me—I am not alone!” Stephen is fearless in part because Christ’s presence inspired him.

Number two--Stephen was fearless because he knew that even though the world condemned him, Christ vindicated him.  We see this embedded in Stephen’s report of what he saw.  He says, “…Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.  The question that should spring to mind if you are familiar with other texts that picture Jesus at God’s right hand is, “Why is he standing?”  In every other text where Jesus is seen at God’s right hand he’s sitting.  We quoted Jesus from Mark 14 earlier

“…you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.”   The Psalm from which all these references are taken is Psalm 110.  God is interacting with Christ here. “1 The Lord says to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.”  So why is Jesus standing here?  The answer is revealed  with an understanding of the legal courts within Judaism.  When the judge in the Ancient Near East was hearing a case, he remained seated until the moment when he pronounced his verdict—then he stood up.  The symbolism here is powerful.  In the midst of these legal proceedings on earth, another trial is taking place in heaven.  And Jesus the Judge stands here to render his vindicating verdict at the very moment this unjust sentence is being carried out by the Jewish leaders.  Stephen is fearless here because he knows that—though he has been condemned by the world, Jesus has completely vindicated him.[5] 

          Paul says it this way in Romans 8:31, “…If God is for us, who can be against us?  Do we believe that?  Do we live by and draw strength from that promise?  If what I am doing is of God and therefore has his vindication, then I can take whatever the consequences I might  suffer.  The one thing I can’t take if I’m a faithful witness--is the notion of disobeying God. Is that the way we think?  The crucial factor that enables a person to live that way is—the size of the Savior and the importance of his opinion as compared to the size and importance of other people and their opinion.  If Christ and your love for him is much bigger than your love for others, then mark it down--you will follow Christ—even to your death.  But if others and their opinions are bigger or more important to you than Jesus, then you will deny Christ in disobedience.  Stephen is far more compelled by Jesus than he is by these Jewish religious leaders who are about to kill him, so for him it was no contest—faithfully testify to what you have seen. So the question is—“how do you love Christ more than others?”  Jesus implies one way we’ve seen many times in Luke 7:47.  Jesus says to Simon the Pharisee about a sinful woman who had received forgiveness, 47 Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven—for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.”

          This woman had great sin and only a great Savior can forgive great sin.  She made a fool out of herself for Jesus by the culture’s standard because she didn’t care as much about the cultural standard as she did blessing Jesus.  Just like Stephen.  Great sin means a great Savior and out of your great love for this Great Savior you will be motivated by his vindication—his approval, not this world’s.  This is just one more reason why the “gospel lite” that is so often preached today where sin is not mentioned much or at all will never produce genuine converts who radically love Jesus.  They have little sin and therefore a little Savior and therefore little love for him, which means the first time they are confronted with a choice between following a little Christ or caving into the world, they will cave because their Savior isn’t big enough to compel them to suffer for him.  If you want to love God radically, ask him to show you the magnitude of your sin before his holiness and when he does that—by his grace, believe the gospel--that Christ has completely, totally forgiven you and accepts you as his beloved.  You believe that, you will be more faithful in your witness.

          A final reason for Stephen’s boldness is because he knew Christ would welcome him into eternity.  Scholars argue whether Jesus is standing up to welcome Stephen into heaven or standing as his vindicating Judge.  The answer is—both are true.  Stephen could face death as a martyr without fear because he knew he would see Jesus when he died and for a believer in love with Jesus that means that the worst this world can do to you is send you to be with the One you love!  People who say they want to go to heaven but don’t mention as their first reason—so I can be with Jesus—I question whether or not they know Jesus.  You can face death and death to self for Christ if you know Jesus will be there for you on the other side of your decision.  In our lives, our love for Christ and our desire to be with him wanes when we begin to succumb to idolatry to the things of this earth--our possessions,  family members.  When our idols begin to draw off our love for Christ, our willingness to face death or death to self in our witness will diminish proportionately.  If our very top priority in life is to know and love and be with Jesus, then dying for him is not a bad thing.  The question of martyrdom raises some very hard questions, doesn’t it?

          Where is there hope for us who do not love Jesus as we ought in this text?  Where is the gospel here?  I find a lot of gospel hope in the second half of verse 58.  And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul.  We must never forget that the apostle Paul--the greatest missionary in church history, the greatest theologian in church history—the author of half of the New Testament and arguable the greatest Christian in church history--when we meet him, he’s helping to kill Stephen. I find that intensely hope-giving.  God’s grace can take one of the greatest persecutors of the church and make him into the greatest Christian of all time.  If God can take a wolf like Saul and make him into a sheep and even a shepherd like Paul, then God can take a bunch of timid, cowardly lambs like us and make them into a lions filled with holy boldness.  That’s what we are if we are in Christ.  Proverbs 28:1 says, “1 The wicked flee when no one pursues, but the righteous are bold as a lion.”  Jesus is in the business of making his disciples into what he has called them—bold lions.  If we contemplate our great sin and our great Savior who promises to vindicate the faithful, if we believe he is always with us and will welcome us into eternity to be with him—If we by his grace are willing to witness at all costs and are walking under the controlling influence of the Spirit, we will show the boldness we have in Christ.  May God give us the grace to be who we are in Christ for his glory and our joy.

[1] BAGD, p.838—see also Fernando for a similar understanding, p259.

[2] Bock, Acts quoting Philo Decalogue 13, p. 313.

[3] Keener, C.S., & InterVarsity Press. (1993).  The IVP Bible background commentary:  New Testament (Ac 7:53-8:4).

[4] Keener, C.S….comments on verses 56-58.

[5] So, Bock, Keener, Bruce, Fernando.


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