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Stephen Martyred

INTRODUCTION: Stephen has taken a firm stand on his faith that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah, even though he certainly knows that the Jewish leaders intend to kill him based on their charge of blasphemy. We have already been told by the inspired text that Stephen is filled with the Holy Spirit; and as recorded in the gospels, Jesus had forewarned his disciples that they would be persecuted and even killed for their faith if they followed him. Now that Stephen has concluded his defense, and has charged his accusers with the betrayal and murder of Jesus, their inquiry abruptly ended and they proceeded to furious action against Stephen.

NOTE: All Bible text is taken from the American King James Version of the Bible.

A - Acts 7

54 When they heard these things, they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed on him with their teeth. 55 But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up steadfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God, 56 And said, Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God.

COMMENTS: Because of the word choice, the expression used here of "cut to the heart" indicates a very negative reaction on a strong emotional level, and their actions confirm that fact. What a sad response for them, as they had opportunity to be touched by the Spirit of God, but their hearts were not penetrated by the truth. Stephen has a rare type of encouragement as he is enabled to look up into heaven and see the Lord Jesus standing at the right hand of the Father! How full of awe and joy must his heart have been as he declared what he saw. His address to this crowd with predetermined intent had the opposite effect as the address Peter made to a crowd with open hearts, as recorded earlier in the book of Acts.

Even though each group was affected deeply in their emotions, Peter's crowd was "pricked" in their hearts and thus they were moved to positive action. Peter's comments included affirmation that Jesus is at the right hand of God, as prophesied in the Psalms. "This Jesus has God raised up, whereof we all are witnesses. Therefore being by the right hand of God exalted, and having received of the Father the promise of the Holy Ghost, he has shed forth this, which you now see and hear. For David is not ascended into the heavens: but he said himself, The Lord said to my Lord, Sit you on my right hand, Until I make your foes your footstool. Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God has made the same Jesus, whom you have crucified, both Lord and Christ. Now when they heard this, they were pricked in their heart, and said to Peter and to the rest of the apostles, Men and brothers, what shall we do? Then Peter said to them, Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. For the promise is to you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the LORD our God shall call." (Acts 2:32-39 AKJV).

Jesus had referenced the passage from Psalm 110 during a discussion with some Pharisees, and certainly some of his disciples had been with him at that time. "While the Pharisees were gathered together, Jesus asked them, Saying, What think you of Christ? whose son is he? They say to him, The son of David. He said to them, How then does David in spirit call him Lord, saying, The LORD said to my Lord, Sit you on my right hand, till I make your enemies your footstool? If David then call him Lord, how is he his son? And no man was able to answer him a word, neither dared any man from that day forth ask him any more questions." (Matthew 22:41-46 AKJV).

It is interesting to note in this next passage that the accusers of Jesus themselves spoke many "blasphemous" things to him, as they falsely accused him of blasphemy! He spoke of his crucifixion and afterwards that he would sit at God's right hand.
"And many other things blasphemously spoke they against him. And as soon as it was day, the elders of the people and the chief priests and the scribes came together, and led him into their council, saying, Are you the Christ? tell us. And he said to them, If I tell you, you will not believe: And if I also ask you, you will not answer me, nor let me go. Hereafter shall the Son of man sit on the right hand of the power of God." (Luke 22:65-69 AKJV). The gospel of Mark gives us this declaration that it happened as Jesus had said.
"So then after the Lord had spoken to them, he was received up into heaven, and sat on the right hand of God." (Mark 16:19 AKJV).
Stephen had the distinct honor of seeing the Lord Jesus in that exalted position in heaven.

B - Acts 7

57 Then they cried out with a loud voice, and stopped their ears, and ran on him with one accord, 58 And cast him out of the city, and stoned him: and the witnesses laid down their clothes at a young man's feet, whose name was Saul.

COMMENTS: What a vivid picture of the outright rejection of all of what Stephen has been detailing about the work of the Lord, capped by an exhilarating exclamation as Stephen looks heavenward. The men loudly cried out and "stopped their ears", so as not to hear any more from him. Their fury caused them to rush at him as a mob, drag him out of the city, and immediately begin to stone him to death. This form of execution would have been lawful based on the code as written by Moses, if Stephen had been guilty of blasphemy.
"Bring forth him that has cursed without the camp; and let all that heard him lay their hands on his head, and let all the congregation stone him. And you shall speak to the children of Israel, saying, Whoever curses his God shall bear his sin. And he that blasphemes the name of the LORD, he shall surely be put to death, and all the congregation shall certainly stone him: as well the stranger, as he that is born in the land, when he blasphemes the name of the Lord, shall be put to death." (Leviticus 24:14-16 AKJV).

It is interesting that the Jewish leaders were able to mete this mode of execution to Stephen on their own authority (even though it was unjust), but in the case of Jesus, they had to coerce the representative of Roman authority to have Jesus crucified. The earlier text in Stephen's story has already revealed to us that the witnesses were not testifying the truth about Stephen, so his execution was similarly unjust as was that of his Lord. The witnesses laid their cloaks at the feet of a young man named Saul as they vented their vigorous hatred. This is the first mention of Saul, but in the book of Acts it certainly will not be the last word about him.

C - Acts 7

59 And they stoned Stephen, calling on God, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. 60 And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep.

COMMENTS: As Stephen was being killed by the stoning, four things are noteworthy in the text: 1) he was calling on God, 2) he knelt and said "Lord Jesus receive my spirit," 3) he asked forgiveness for his slayers, and 4) and when he had said this he fell asleep. Stephen had the privilege of sharing some very poignant aspects of his death with that of Christ Jesus:
1) neither of them was guilty of blasphemy,
2) both asked that their slayers be forgiven,
3) both committed their spirit to God just before they died.
There is no other death of a Christian recorded in scripture with such similarities to the death of Christ.

This should not cause us to diminish the unparalleled uniqueness of Jesus, because he alone has the power to lay down his life and take it up again. "Therefore does my Father love me, because I lay down my life, that I might take it again. No man takes it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This commandment have I received of my Father." (John 10:17-18 AKJV). When the crowd planned to do harm to Jesus in Nazareth, he did not need to fight, or to have help from an angel to evade their murderous intent. "And all they in the synagogue, when they heard these things, were filled with wrath, And rose up, and thrust him out of the city, and led him to the brow of the hill where on their city was built, that they might cast him down headlong. But he passing through the middle of them went his way, And came down to Capernaum, a city of Galilee, and taught them on the sabbath days." (Luke 4:28-31 AKJV).

Twice the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem wanted to stone Jesus, but he evaded them without a struggle, and with no help from an angel. "Jesus said to them, Truly, truly, I say to you, Before Abraham was, I am. Then took they up stones to cast at him: but Jesus hid himself, and went out of the temple, going through the middle of them, and so passed by." (John 8:58-59 AKJV).
The second time Jesus clearly claimed to be God, and again he had no trouble in evading their intent. . "Jesus answered them, Many good works have I showed you from my Father; for which of those works do you stone me? The Jews answered him, saying, For a good work we stone you not; but for blasphemy; and because that you, being a man, make yourself God." ... "If I do not the works of my Father, believe me not. But if I do, though you believe not me, believe the works: that you may know, and believe, that the Father is in me, and I in him. Therefore they sought again to take him: but he escaped out of their hand, And went away again beyond Jordan into the place where John at first baptized; and there he stayed." (John 10:32-33, 37-40 AKJV).

D - Acts 8

1 And Saul was consenting to his death. And at that time there was a great persecution against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered abroad throughout the regions of Judaea and Samaria, except the apostles. 2 And devout men carried Stephen to his burial, and made great lamentation over him.

COMMENTS: Saul (AKA Paul after his conversion) was consenting to Stephen's death, and this seemed to be the event that launched him into a personal attack on the church. Many disciples were scattered from Jerusalem, but some devout men buried Stephen. This seems like a terrible event until we read on to see how the persecution was like "throwing water on an oil fire," with the result not to extinguish, but instead to further scatter the flames.

E - Acts 8

3 As for Saul, he made havoc of the church, entering into every house, and haling men and women committed them to prison. 4 Therefore they that were scattered abroad went every where preaching the word.

COMMENTS: What an incredible testimony for Stephen! His firm stand for Christ brought about his death, and launched a great persecution against all who believed as he did. And yet, the Lord used this to scatter the church as they fled to preserve their lives. But as they went, they carried the gospel message to the next regions after Jerusalem as the risen Jesus had said, "But you shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come on you: and you shall be witnesses to me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and to the uttermost part of the earth." (Acts 1:8 AKJV). But the apostles stood firm in Jerusalem, rather than fleeing for their lives. The base of the church in the roots of Judaism remained in the temple city, while the gospel was carried out by common people living out their faith. How God works marvelously through the various members of His body!

--- Reflections in prayer ---

The Holy Spirit continued to strengthen Stephen even as he was being slain. There was absolute confidence in his release of life to seal his transfer into heaven by saying, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." He had submitted so completely to the control of the Holy Spirit and had given concern for self preservation over to God that he could ask that his slayers be forgiven. These qualities in Stephen are ones that can come only from you Lord, and I ask that you prepare me through your grace, to meet all challenges that lie ahead in my own life. Though my life may not end as dramatically as did Stephen's, it is my desire that the glory of your gift of salvation not be diminished. Strengthen me to be faithful Lord, because you are forever faithful. Amen.

Published 2 February 2007