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July 9, 2022
Faithful Unto Death (Stephen) Courage To Die Unafraid
Pastor Philip De Courcy
Acts 7: 54 - 60

Purchase the CD of this sermon.


In the new series, Profiles in Courage, Pastor Philip explores the lives of biblical figures who exemplify God-given courage. From Genesis to Revelation, these profiles of courage will inspire us to take a stand for righteousness and unwavering faith.
Courage is not limited to a select few; it is a quality all believers must cultivate. It involves putting ourselves at risk, sacrificing comfort, and persevering in the face of opposition. It demands a firm commitment to truth and an unwavering determination to do what others cannot or will not do.

More From This Series


Take your Bible and open to Acts 7. If you’re visiting with us this morning, as many of you are, we’re in a series called Profiles in Courage. This is a day for biblical bravery. This is a day for bold gospel commitment. And we are looking at different biblical characters, especially men who showed courage. We’re looking at profiles in courage. We looked at Elijah, the courage to take sides. We looked at Joshua, the courage to step up. We looked at Nehemiah, the courage to keep going. We looked at Joseph, the courage to say “no” to sexual temptation. We looked last month at the apostles, the courage to bravely defy the government. And this morning we’re looking at Stephen, the courage to die for Christ. The courage to die for Christ.
Open your Bible. Acts 7:54: “When they heard these things . . .” The context is Stephen preaching publicly in the vicinity of the Sanhedrin and the Jewish leaders. And after he had preached the sermon and condemned the nation for rejecting the Messiah, God’s Son, Jesus Christ:
When they heard these things they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed at him with their teeth. But he, being full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and said, “Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!”
Then they cried out with a loud voice, stopped their ears, and ran at him with one accord; and they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul. And they stoned Stephen as he was calling on God and saying, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.
So reads God’s Word.
It was like a scene out of the movie Gladiator as Bishop Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, was dragged into the Roman Colosseum. He had been arrested some hours before because he had failed to swear by Caesar. As he was dragged in before the crowd in the Colosseum, the Roman proconsul sought to persuade him one more time to deny Christ. And he said this: “Have respect to thy old age. . . . Swear by Caesar, and we will set thee at liberty.” Polycarp replied, “Eighty and six years have I served Him, and He never did me any injury: how then can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour? . . . Hear me declare with boldness, I am a Christian.”
They tried to persuade him one or two more times. They reminded him that he was about to face an awful death in fire, to which he replied, “You threaten me with fire which burns for an hour . . . but are ignorant of the fire of the coming judgment and of eternal punishment.” Astonished at his boldness and his bravery, the proconsulate declared in the midst of the Colosseum that Polycarp has confessed that he is a Christian, and so they sat about killing him. They tied him up, they surrounded him with the funeral pile, and they set it on fire. His last words were, “O Lord God Almighty, the Father of Thy beloved and blessed Son Jesus Christ . . . I give Thee thanks that Thou hast counted me worthy . . . that I should have a part in the number of Thy martyrs, in the cup of thy Christ, to the resurrection of eternal life.”
Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna, was aware of the words of Jesus Christ to the church at Smyrna some years earlier, when in Revelation 2:10, Jesus said what? “Be faithful until death.” Stay committed to Me to the very point of death. And Polycarp played the man, and Polycarp was faithful to the point of death. He confessed himself a Christian. He was happy to be numbered among the martyrs of the church of Jesus Christ.
Now, listen to me this morning, guys. Faithfulness to the point of death is part of your calling. It is part of my calling as a disciple of Jesus Christ. In the book of Acts, we read of past disciples of Christ, namely the apostles, and how they risked their lives for gospel advancement (Acts 15:26). In the book of Revelation, we read of future disciples of Jesus Christ and how they loved not their life unto death (Rev. 12:11). And what we’re being reminded in those verses is the fact that willingness to give one’s life for the sake of the gospel is a trademark of Christianity. It’s a trademark of discipleship. If you go to the hall of fame or the hall of faith in Hebrews 11, you read in verse 35 about women who “received their dead raised to life again.” And “others were tortured, not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection. Still others had trial of mockings and scourgings, yes, and of chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, were tempted, were slain with the sword. They wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, tormented—of whom the world was not worthy” (vv. 35–38). Willingness to give one’s life for the sake of the gospel is a mark of true Christianity, and that reality continues to this day.
According to a study recently released by the Pew Research Center, about three-fourths of the population of the world lives under a government that has highly restricted religious freedoms. Of those restrictions, the majority are aimed at Christians. Some international humanitarian agencies have estimated—listen to this—that 80% of all religious persecution in the world today is aimed at Christians. More Christians were killed because of their faith in the 20th century than in all previous centuries combined.
As Gregory Cochran notes in his book Christians in the Crosshairs, Christians today are, by some order of magnitude, the most persecuted religious body on the planet, suffering not just martyrdom but all forms of intimidation and oppression in record numbers. That’s not a hunch or a theory or an anecdotal impression but an undisputed, empirical fact of life, confirmed from multiple sources, respected observers of human rights across the globe.
But, listen, whether one actually becomes a martyr or not, the Christian is always animated by a spirit of martyrdom. It’s unlikely that any one of us here today, if we continue to live in the United States during our lifetime, will be martyred for our faith. Not impossible. Unlikely. But whether we are an actual martyr, you and I as men ought to be possessed by the spirit of martyrdom. Whether we die for Jesus Christ, we are willing to die for Jesus Christ. And if we don’t die for Jesus Christ literally, we die to self each and every day, which is a form of martyrdom.
Didn’t Paul say in 1 Corinthians 15:31 . . . Have you read it recently? Have you thought about it recently? “I die daily.” Jesus taught us in Luke 9:23–24 that you and I are to take up our cross, which was an instrument of death. We’re to take up our cross each and every day if we are going to be His disciples. There are martyrs every day, and there is everyday martyrdom. Every small act of sacrificial and selfless service is a dry run for actual martyrdom. Sacrifice in service is a kind of martyrdom because it requires a dying to self. Michael Jensen insightfully notes, “Martyrdom is the external representation of the inner reality of the Christian life.”
I remember hearing this many years ago, and it’s such a good statement. Persecution doesn’t make martyrs. Persecution reveals those who were already martyrs—those who already put their life on the line for Jesus Christ, those living sacrifices that climbed up onto the altar of Christian dedication and discipleship. Memorize that. Think about that. Persecution doesn’t make martyrs; it reveals martyrs. That’s why we need to be everyday martyrs and maybe someday a martyr.
Listen to these words by Spurgeon: “No man would find it difficult to die who died every day. He would have practised it so often, that he would only have to die but once more; like the singer who has been through his rehearsals, and is perfect in his part, and has but to pour forth the notes once for all, and have done. Happy are they who every morning go down to Jordan’s brink, and wade into the stream in fellowship with Christ, dying in the Lord’s death, being crucified on his cross, and raised in his resurrection. They, when they shall climb their Pisgah, shall behold nothing but what has been long familiar to them, as they have studied the map of death. . . . God teach us this art, and he shall have the glory of it.”
Spurgeon’s talking about this idea, right? It’s not difficult to die as a martyr of Jesus Christ if you have died every day as a disciple of Jesus Christ to self-ambition, self-glory, self-preservation.
You know the story of George Müller, actually a contemporary of Spurgeon. When he was asked to describe and define his success in ministry, he said this: “There was a day when I died, utterly died, died to George Müller, his opinions, preferences, tastes and will, died to the world, its approval or censure, died to the approval or blame even of my brethren and friends, and since then I have studied only to show myself approved unto God.”
We’re going to come and look at courage to die for Christ. And, as I’ve said, the chances are that few of us will face that in reality. But, if we’re not called to be a martyr someday, we are always called to be a martyr every day.
So let’s come and look at Acts 7, a profile in courage, faithfulness to the point of death. Here’s the story of the first Christian martyr in Acts 7:54–60. Context just very quickly. This seems to be a turning point. The immediate history was the parting of ways between Judaism and Christianity. They kind of coexisted, but at this point the Jewish leaders had had enough. They wanted to put up distance between Judaism and Christianity, and so they set about martyring the first Christian.
The immediate history is the parting of ways between Judaism and Christianity. The broader history is that we’re being shown here another element in church growth. Remember we did a study on the book of Acts called “Ready, Steady, Grow”? We sought to define several of the ignition points that brought about the growth of the church. And here is one of them: boldness in sacrifice and a willingness to do what it takes for the glory of Jesus Christ, whatever the cost.
So, let’s jump right in now. Long, but I trust a helpful, introduction.
Acts 7:54–60. Three things: Stephen attacked; Stephen assured; Stephen asleep.
Let’s look at the first one: Stephen attacked. “When they heard these things they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed at him with their teeth.” Before long they will stop their ears (v. 57), and they will run at him. They will take him outside the city, they will throw him down an embankment, and they will stone him to death. See, they were charging Stephen with blasphemy, but he had turned the tables on them. He had shown them that they were the true blasphemers. So, the Jewish leaders and the mob that they had rented back in chapter 6 attacked Stephen like a pack of wild animals.
They had been pierced in the heart with conviction, wounded in the conscience. So, instead of healing in repentance, they sat about inflicting pain on the one who was the source of their discomfort. As one writer put it, they had an all-consuming rage which is about to explode into murderous violence. So, when they heard these things, they were cut to the heart, as we’ve just said, and instead of seeking healing in repentance, they are going to inflict pain on the one who has brought discomfort to them.
You’ll notice in verse 55 that their ferociousness is met with a vision, where Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, gazes into heaven. He sees the glory of God, and he sees Jesus standing at the right hand of God. He communicates that to them in verse 56: “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” But that was pouring fuel on the fire from their perspective, because if you go back to Mark 14:61–64, Jesus’ claim of being the Son of Man who would ascend to the right hand of God and return in power and glory was the very grounds of their charges of blasphemy against Jesus Christ and the reason that they set out to kill Him. So, they’re not about to embrace this vision by Stephen, because that would be an admission of guilt. That would be an affirmation of the thing that they denied, that Jesus is the Son of Man (Dan. 7:13–14). And so, just as they had killed Christ for saying that, they killed Stephen for repeating that.
So, their ferociousness is met with a vision, and the vision is met with violence. So, Stephen is taken outside the city and stoned to death in an act of mob justice. It was more of a lynching than it was an official execution.
But there’s several takeaways here. Number one, as I look at this incident, Stephen attacked, I see what I call “the proof.” This text confirms the promise offered to the disciples of Christ concerning the role of the Holy Spirit in inspiring believers to speak up in challenging circumstances.
Let’s go back to Luke 12:12 for a brief moment. Here’s what Jesus says to His disciples when they’re up against it, when they’re facing persecution. He promises them this: “For the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say.” When Jesus is dealing with the last days and difficult times in chapter 21 of Luke again, in verse 15, He makes a similar promise: “For I will give you a mouth and wisdom which all your adversaries will not be able to contradict or resist.” And that’s exactly what’s going on here.
Stephen’s composure in the midst of these challenging circumstances is striking, and it reminds us of the promise that Jesus made, and the fact that Jesus fulfilled that promise. If you go back to Acts 6:8, we read, “And Stephen, full of faith and power, did great wonders and signs among the people.” Look at verse 10: “And they were not able to resist the wisdom and the Spirit by which he spoke.” Simple point: the proof. This text confirms the promise offered to His disciples by Christ concerning the role of the Holy Spirit inspiring believers to say what they need to say when the circumstances are challenging.
Number two, we’ve got the pattern. The proof, the pattern. What’s the pattern? The pattern is that you and I will suffer in setting out to proclaim the gospel. That’s just the pattern. We see it in the book of Acts, don’t we? In Acts 5:41, we looked at that the last time we were together, how the apostles were bullied by the authorities. They suffered a beating, and they counted themselves worthy that they had suffered for the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. When Paul is saved, he is told very early on in Acts 9:15–16 that he will suffer many things as an apostle to the Gentiles. In Acts 14:22, we’re told that indeed it is through much tribulation that we will enter the kingdom. And that’s the pattern.
The pattern is suffering now and glory later. The pattern is the cross now and the crown later. If you and I are going to preach the cross, and you and I are going to preach the suffering Savior, you and I need to know that that will invariably involve us bearing a cross. If you’re going to preach the suffering Savior, I’ll guarantee you, you’re going to suffer. From its inception on the day of Pentecost, the church always, always, always faced opposition. And the book of Acts shows that. In Acts 3, Peter and John face opposition. In Acts 6, Stephen faces opposition. In Acts 12, James, the brother of John, is martyred by the wicked King Herod, who will imprison Peter himself.
Then you look at Paul and his life and the fierce opposition he faced. In Damascus, he has to flee for his life in a basket (Acts 9). He’s forced to flee from Iconium in Acts 14. He’s pelted with stones and left for dead in Lystra (Acts 14). He’s beaten and thrown into jail in Philippi (Acts 16). We could go on. There’s a pattern. The preaching of the cross by the servants of Christ will invariably involve taking up a cross. So just to make sure, that’s written into your job description as an evangelist or a witness for Jesus Christ.
I love the story of Richard Wurmbrand, the Romanian prisoner of conscience and prisoner of Christ. He said this in one of his books, Tortured for Christ: “It was strictly forbidden to preach to other prisoners. It was understood that whoever was caught doing this received a severe beating. A number of us decided to pay the price for the privilege of preaching, so we accepted their [the prison wardens’, the communists’] terms. It was a deal; we preached and they beat us. We were happy preaching. They were happy beating us, so everyone was happy.” That’s striking. But I think Richard Wurmbrand understands the pattern.
The proof. The pattern. The perspective.
The perspective. What I’m talking about here is a perspective on evangelism. Here we have a public proclamation of the gospel in this fantastic sermon by God’s servant Stephen. But I don’t want you to miss something. Good and gripping evangelism, compelling proclamation, well thought-out missions doesn’t always result in a positive outcome. Stephen was met with resistance, right? They resisted the Holy Spirit. They shut their ears, and they ran at him. Although the Spirit empowered his witness . . . This man is full of the Holy Spirit. We read in Acts 6 that they couldn’t refute his wisdom. Although Spirit-empowered, his witness resulted in martyrdom, not mass conversion. Stephen was biblical in his preaching, wise in his presentation, and Spirit filled.
In fact, his manner was Christlike. He was loving and gracious. In fact, in his own death, he takes two prayers offered by Jesus Christ on the cross: Lord, receive my spirit; and, Lord, don’t charge this to my enemies. So, just want you to get that picture, right? He ticks all the boxes as an evangelist. He’s Spirit-filled. He’s smart. He’s engaging. He’s wise, and he’s loving. But no one gets saved. There’s no mass conversion. There’s a single martyrdom. And it’s a reminder to be faithful in our presentation regardless of the results. That’s the perspective we need to bring.
If you haven’t read it, you should read it. It’s a book by Mark Dever on personal evangelism. But in that book he would remind us that evangelism is not to be defined in terms of the results. Evangelism must always be defined in terms of the faithful proclamation of the message. That’s your job. The outcome lies with God and His sovereign will. Listen to these words by John Stott, quoted by Mark Dever: “To ‘evangelize’ . . . does not mean to win converts . . . but simply to announce the good news, irrespective of the results.” That’s your job and my job. That’s Nelson’s job and the team’s job this afternoon. That’s the job of our team going to Macallan: to announce the good news faithfully, regardless of the results. You will have evangelized when you have shared the gospel.
In fact, Stott goes on in another occasion to say, “To evangelize is to spread the good news that Jesus Christ died for our sins and was raised from the dead according to the Scriptures, and that, as the reigning Lord, he now offers the forgiveness of sins and the liberating gifts of the Spirit to all who repent and believe.” See, according to 2 Corinthians 2:15–16, we will be a savor of life unto some and a savor of death unto others. We will bring the joy of forgiveness to those who receive the gospel, and we will bring double judgment on those who reject it. Faithfulness. That’s the perspective.
During a series of revival meetings many years ago, there was a great evangelist who was involved actually here in Biola, R. A. Torrey. He was involved in a mission, and he preached his heart out for several nights with no results. A man by the name of Homer Hammontree—God bless him—was his song leader, and he was frustrated, discouraged, bothered by the lukewarm response. But R. A. Torrey said, “Ham, it is required in stewards, that a man be found faithful. Goodnight. I am going to bed.” That continued for a few nights until God opened the windows of heaven, and He poured out a blessing, and many people started coming to Christ. And Homer was just thrilled by this. On the night of one of those blessed evenings, he was so thrilled and was so exuberant. And he shared that with R. A. Torrey, to which he replied, “Hammon, Ham, it is required of stewards, that a man be found faithful. Goodnight. I am going to bed.” Get what’s going on with R. A. Torrey? Response or no response, my job’s to be faithful. I’m going to bed. The results are in God’s hands.
That’s the proof, the pattern, the perspective. One other thing here quickly: the prospect. Love this. The prospect. They heard the Word; it cut them to the heart. Instead of repenting, they decide to inflict pain on the one who inflicted pain on their conscience. So, like a pack of wild animals, they gnashed at him with their teeth. They stopped their ears. They ran at him. They cast him out of the city and stoned him. Notice verse 58: “And the witnesses laid down their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul.” Who’s Saul? Paul. This is Paul while he’s Saul. And here’s our first introduction to Saul of Tarsus, the man who approved Stephen’s death.
Look at verse 1 of chapter 8: “Now Saul was consenting to his death.” Saul gave official permission, so to speak. He gave approval, consent for the death of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. We have every reason to believe that God used the bravery and the beauty of Stephen’s life and testimony to bring Saul to a point of conviction. Saul would be an answer to Stephen’s prayer: “Lord, don’t charge this to their account.” Or, as Warren Wiersbe says, “God never wastes the blood of His saints.” Through the death of Stephen and the manner of his death, the very man who consented to it, the very man who rubberstamped it is challenged. You can see that in Acts 22:20. When Jesus Christ apprehends Paul on the road to Damascus, what does Jesus say? “Saul, you’re fighting against the goads,” or, the Old King James, the “pricks.” That’s a term for the stick that someone would use to goad and poke at the animal in front. The inference would seem to be that one of the things goading, one of the things poking at the conscience and life of Saul was the manner in which and the testimony given by Stephen at his death. I love that.
Now remember, no immediate results. But, later on, not too far into the future, Saul would become a Christian. Now, you wouldn’t think it at that moment as they laid their clothes at Saul’s feet because stoning was hard work. That’s why they took their clothes off. I remember reading an account that often, given how long it would maybe take—especially with a young, healthy male—they’d take their clothes off, and they’d tie their tunic around their waist because it’s going to take a while to get them down and then to kill them. The clothes are all piled up at Saul’s feet, but he would be convicted and converted. I think that’s a wonderful truth. It gives us hope.
It reminds us, as Paul describes himself, that he was a violent man and a blasphemer, the chief of sinners. But God saved him as a pattern of the mercy God’s willing to show to the widest number of people and the worst kind of people.
I’ve made reference to this article written by Russell Moore some years ago, and I want to make reference to it now and move on. “Where Is the Next Billy Graham?” Russell Moore grew up in a Baptist home, and in this article he talks about sitting in church with his grandmother who was now a widow and former pastor’s wife. A man was sitting in front of them, and his arm was covered with a large tattoo of a woman whom he describes as not being dressed for church, of immodest attire.
He said:
I couldn’t believe I was seeing this, in my church. I was simultaneously thrilled (when else does on get to see naked women in church?) and outraged (how dare anyone do that in my church?). So I nudged my grandmother and pointed, as if to say, “Can you believe this?”
My grandmother leaned down and whispered. I expected her to share my outrage. . . . She was, after all, a pastor’s widow with strict moral standards who had once washed my mouth out with soap because I had said “Gosh,” which was, of course, to her just a rebranded way to take the Lord’s name in vain. But that side of her didn’t show up in that moment. She whispered, “Yes, honey. He doesn’t know the Lord yet, and he’s had a hard life, with drink and drugs and all. But his wife had been trying to get him to come to church for a long time, and we’ve all been praying for him. He’s not trying to be ugly to anybody. He just doesn’t know Jesus yet.”
I’ll never forget that word “yet.” With that one word she turned my imagination on its head. She put before me the possibility that this hardened ex-military man with the naked woman tattoo might one day be my brother-in-Christ. And, in time, he was. I suppose as time went on this new Christian started to see that his tattoo was potentially a stumbling block to others, because I started to see it less and less as he started to wear long sleeves to church. Some of the other kids in the church said that . . . he had added a bikini to her, and then later a one-piece bathing suit. For all I know, he may have died with her in a plaid pantsuit and a briefcase.
But he’s just thrilled at the thought, and then he finishes his article after other things:
The next Billy Graham might be drunk right now. The next Jonathan Edwards might be the man driving in front of you with the Darwin Fish bumper decal. The next Charles Wesley might currently be a misogynistic, profanity-spewing hip-hop artist. The next Charles Spurgeon might be managing an abortion clinic today. The next Augustine of Hippo might be a sexually promiscuous cult member right now, just like, come to think of it, the first Augustine of Hippo was.
Where is the next Billy Graham? Maybe sleeping off a hangover this morning. And you get that thought from the fact that as Stephen died, without any response, there stood a man by the name of Saul consenting to his death. Who would’ve imagined? So, the next time you want to give up on someone, never forget the word “yet.” Never forget the word “yet.”
Okay, that’s the first point over: Stephen attacked. Stephen assured. Stephen’s calm in the storm is amazing. Amen? As they stoned him, he prays, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” As they stone him, “with a loud voice,” he wants them to hear it: “Lord, do not charge them with this sin.” He doesn’t run; he stands his ground. He doesn’t fear his enemies; he forgives his enemies. With his opponents in his face, baying for his blood, Stephen looks to Jesus, and Stephen dies looking like the Lord Jesus. Amazing.
Three things about this courage, this calm, this expressed assurance. One, controlled by the Spirit of God. Did you notice that? Here’s what plays into his courage. He’s controlled by the Spirit of God. Verse 55: “But he, being full of the Holy Spirit . . .” That’s why he wasn’t filled with fear, because he was filled by the Holy Spirit.
The word “filled” in Ephesians 5:18 means “controlled.” When you and I are filled by the Spirit, we’re controlled by the Spirit. We talk about, at least we do back in the UK, someone being full of the cold, all right? You get the cold, the flu. They’re full of the cold. That means that the cold or the flu has taken over their body. They feel it from head to toe, with fevers and coughs and sneezing. They’re full of the cold. And when you read that Stephen is full of the Holy Spirit, he’s controlled by the Holy Spirit. He’s under the Holy Spirit’s influence, and you read about that in chapter 6, verses 3, 5, 8, 10, and here. The Spirit’s presence and power radiated from him. In fact, in chapter 6, it says he had “the face of an angel” (v. 15).
And we know in the bigger picture that the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost was a game changer, as he came to indwell the believer, turning the fearful disciples into fearless disciples. No greater example than Peter, all right? One minute we find him denying the Lord in the face of a servant girl. Post-Pentecost, he stands up in front of 3,000 and bravely declares the gospel and confesses Jesus as Lord. How do you account for that? The Holy Spirit.
Now, we don’t have time to develop this, but if you want to know how to be filled by the Holy Spirit and be controlled by Him, the answer to that is you come under the authority of the Word and you obey it. If you want to compare Ephesians 5:18 and Colossians 3:16, you will see that to be filled with the Spirit is the same as letting the Word of Christ dwell in you richly, because the results are the same.
One, he’s controlled by the Spirit of God. Two, he’s captivated by the splendor of God. Being full of the Holy Spirit, he gazes into heaven, and he sees the glory of God. He’s given a window into heaven. This is something like Isaiah 6 and the vision that Isaiah receives of the Lord high and lifted up and how His glory fills the temple. It’s like John in Revelation 4:1–5; he’s given a vision of the One who sits on the throne. I think the point’s simple, guys. He looks beyond the moment that he’s in, with stones crashing down on him, with his life slipping away. It’s at that moment when the walls are closing in and the roof is collapsing, so to speak. He looks beyond that moment. His affection is set on things above. He’s captured by the eternal, not the temporal, and that’s the key. You need to be controlled by the Spirit of God, and you need to be captivated by the splendor of God.
He is about to lose his life. Given what he saw and the glory that surrounds the throne of God and the glory that awaits those who are disciples of Jesus Christ, because it’s suffering first and it’s glory after . . . Like Jim Elliot, who lost his life, he realizes as he loses his life that he is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep for that which he cannot lose.
Captivated by the splendor of God. Controlled by the Spirit of God. I’d love to have said more about those, but I’ll leave it at that. Celebrated by the Son of God.
Next, there’s this intriguing, inspiring vision of Jesus standing. Verses 55 and 56: “and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. . . . ‘The Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’” Does that raise a question? Because in Hebrews 1:3, we read that after Jesus purged our sin, He “sat down” at the right hand of God. In Acts 2:33–35, Peter’s making an argument that Christ is ascended and is seated at the right hand of God as a fulfillment of Psalm 110:1. But Jesus’ posture here is different. He’s not sitting; He’s standing. We infer from that that He’s standing in recognition of this wonderful servant of His, who actually is looking very much like Him in his death. He’s standing to welcome this martyr of the church home.
Remember what Jesus said in Luke 12:8, that if you confess Me before men, I will confess you before the Father? Could that be something of what Jesus is doing, ready to welcome Stephen and usher him into God’s presence and say, “He’s one of ours?” Could it be that Jesus is brought to His feet because of the manner in which Stephen died, courageously and Christlike? I think it’s a combination of acknowledgement and admiration. Here is an outstanding servant of Christ about to hear the “well done, good and faithful servant.” Don’t you want to bring Jesus to His feet by the way you live and the way you die?
I told you last month about Martin Niemöller, Lutheran pastor who got on the wrong side of Hitler and was eventually imprisoned. But, unlike his friend and contemporary Dietrich Bonhoeffer, he survived. After an encounter with Hitler and some intimidation by the Gestapo, Martin Niemöller continued to preach bravely and boldly from his pulpit—so much so that some of his contemporaries and his friends said, given the sensitivity of the issues and the hour they were in, they wondered if he couldn’t be a little bit more diplomatic. “Can’t you tone it down? Can’t you dial it back?” To which he replied, “What does it matter how we look in Germany compared to how we look in heaven?” All right? You’re worried about how the authorities are going to receive this or how they’re going to understand this or see this? Or how we look in the eyes of the Gestapo? What does it matter how we look in Germany compared to how we look in heaven? We’ve got that going on in Acts 6. They think they’re stoning a blasphemer, but Stephen’s not worried how he looks before the Sanhedrin. He says in verse 56, “Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing.”
All right, finally, Stephen asleep. Stephen asleep. Let me squeeze this in. Luke gives us a beautiful and peaceful description of his brutal death. Everything up to this moment’s brutal, but look at what we read: “And when he had said this, he fell asleep.” Now, when a Christian dies, they are said to have fallen asleep in Christ. Remember what Jesus said of Lazarus: he “sleeps” (John 11:11). Paul says of the Thessalonian believers who had passed away that they were asleep in Christ (1 Thess. 4:13). But we’re speaking only of the body because it’s absent from the body, present with the Lord. Death is a separation of spirit and body. The body sleeps. The soul is conscious. It’s not sleeping, and it goes into the presence of Christ, awaiting to be clothed at the resurrection (2 Cor. 5:6–9). Paul says in Philippians 1:21–23, “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain . . . to depart and be with Christ . . . better.” So, the spirit of the deceased saint is with the Lord, and at the rapture Jesus will bring him with the spirits of those who have already died, and their bodies will be raised to perfection. He’d fallen asleep.
There were a few things I wanted to say, but here’s the thing I’m going to finish with because we need this challenge. We’re now jumping out of chapter 7 just ever so briefly and going into chapter 8. “Now Saul was consenting to his death. At that time a great persecution arose against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the regions” (v. 1). Look at verse 2: “And devout men carried Stephen to his burial, and made great lamentation over him.” Stephen was afforded an honorable burial. We’re not sure if the word “godly” here means godly Jews or Christians. The point I just don’t want to miss is that the martyr’s passing did not go unmarked or un-mourned.
It says they “made great lamentation.” I think that’s interesting because, you see, Stephen, from a Jewish perspective, was stoned as a blasphemer. And, if you read later rabbinic literature, the Mishnah, they consider it inappropriate for an honorable burial in public for those condemned by the Sanhedrin. If that’s true later on, it may be true around this time, and the fact that they made great lamentation was kind of a protest. You might think he’s a dishonorable man, but to us, he’s a hero. To us, he’s an honorable disciple of Jesus Christ. Quiet and hidden was the order of the day, but not here.
And the challenge I take from that, as we close: the church honored this martyr, this victim of persecution. Hebrews 13:3, maybe you haven’t read it recently, tells us as men to remember those in prison. The challenge, as we close, is that you and I—in all of our freedoms and in all of our liberties and in all of our blessings, thank God for them—need to be an advocate for the persecuted church. We need to make heroes of martyrs. Maybe some of you young men need to go home and take down your poster of your favorite NFL star and put maybe a picture of Polycarp up on the wall or one of the Protestant Reformers of England who was butchered under Bloody Mary.
Let’s not forget the imprisoned and the persecuted. Let’s learn where the church is being persecuted. Let’s pray for the persecuted church. Let’s write letters of encouragement to members of the persecuted church. Let’s donate financial resources and food to members of the persecuted church. Let’s advocate for them to our political representatives and to our government and human rights bodies, for their good. When William Carey went to India, those who stayed behind described themselves as holding the ropes. Let’s hold the ropes for the persecuted church. Let’s make great lament before God in prayer for them. Let’s make our lament known for all that they’re facing in identifying with Him, in their trouble.
Am I a soldier of the Cross—
A follower of the Lamb?
And shall I fear to own His cause,
Or blush to speak His name?
Must I be carried to the skies
On flowery beds of ease,
While others fought to win the prize
And sailed through bloody seas?
Lord, we thank You for Your servant, Stephen. We thank You that he kept the faith. We thank You that he fought the fight. We thank You that he ran in his lane and there was laid up for him a crown of righteousness, which the Lord Jesus Christ gave him. Lord, while You may not call us here in the United States to actual martyrdom, we still need to live with the spirit of the martyr. We need to die daily. We need to be selfless and sacrificial. We need to be willing to bear our cross in gospel dedication. Help us not to fear men. Help us not to self-censor ourselves in a cancel culture. Help us to be bold witnesses for Jesus Christ. May there be a day, like George Müller, when we die—die to self, die to self-ambition, die to material wealth, die to whatever is good for us—and start living for whatever is good for You and the church.
Help us to be more conscious of our brethren all over the world who are living in a moment in history when more martyrs are being made for the faith than at any time before. We’re an anomaly, and it’s making us fat and lazy and weak and cowardly. History shows us and the Bible tells us, it’s the blood of the martyrs that’s the seed of the church. So, we pray for the persecuted church. Help us to act, and help us to commit ourselves to everyday martyrdom. Because if we’re dying every day, it won’t be hard to die on a day, should Your will determine that for us, for gospel ends. These things we pray and ask in Jesus’ name. Amen.