Main Text: Acts 7:51-60
“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.”
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[a] 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.
In the early stages of the church, we see a community developing that had no “needy person among them” (Acts 4:34). This did not mean that needy people were not allowed, but rather quite the opposite. This meant that everyone willfully gave of their wealth and possessions for the common good of the community.
As the church continued to grow, the needs of the people began to weigh heavily on those in leadership. In light of this, the leaders chose seven men to serve the needs of the church, giving freedom to the leaders to commit themselves to prayer and the ministry of God’s Word. One of these seven was the man Stephen.
Stephen was a great early leader of the church and performed many signs and wonders by the power of God. In our portion, Stephen has been falsely accused of blasphemy against Moses and God, and was brought before a council for judgment. In his defense, he presents how Israel rejected God in their hearts and how their ultimate act of rejection was in killing Jesus. This enraged the council and they took him outside the city and stoned him to death.
As we think about being a sent people of God, we must stop and reflect on the actions of Stephen, who was full of the Holy Spirit and who was killed for his faith. What does it mean to be “sent to die”? Does this mean we will all die a martyr’s death? No. Does this mean that living in this life is not important? No. Does it mean that we should seek escape through death? Absolutely not. It means that we, as Christ-followers, see our lives as lived to Christ and for Christ and we see our death as gain because we then get to be with Christ (Philippians 1:21).
Boldness in Witness
As Stephen came to the end of his defense before the council, he turns his attention squarely on those gathered there and declares them to be working against God by their actions–murdering God’s sent One. Someone trying to preserve their own life would’ve held their tongue or perhaps waited until a more opportune time to voice their accusations.
Luke records that Stephen was “a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 6:5). The Holy Spirit that dwells in us as Christ-followers gives us the boldness that we need in our moment of testing. You will require boldness and courage as a witness of Jesus. You will face opposition as a Christ-follower. What comfort will you turn to in those moments when you live in a society that is against your message?
In the vignette of Stephen’s false accusation, debunk trial and hostile judgment we see a reflection of Christ. Jesus was falsely accused and harshly treated to the point of death by a mob bent on taking his life. Jesus knew that the cost of redeeming a sin-stained world was great (Philippians 2:8) and communicated this to those that would choose to come after him (Matthew 16:24).
The boldness that is required of us as Christ-followers can only be given by the Holy Spirit. We ought to ask God to fill us with His Holy Spirit so that we can boldly testify to the good news of who Jesus is and what He has done.
God’s Glory Revealed
The chaos of the enraged council was eclipsed by the peace of Christ that came on Stephen as he was given a foretaste of the splendor of heaven. His resolve was not a defensive posture set on prolonging his life on the earth, but was a gaze into the throne room of God. Stephen had fully invested his time towards the mission that was set before him and at this moment was receiving a glimpse of his heavenly reward.
Our culture is very fixated with glimpses of heaven. We are very intrigued with stories of people who claim to have been to heaven. No matter what someone’s experience would tell us, we must remember that the Bible alone shows us a true picture of heaven. In this moment before Stephen is killed, we see the reward of heaven come into full view–the person of Jesus. God chose to show Stephen the fullness of joy that he would experience after his final task had been completed.
The author of Hebrews tells us that Christ had joy set before him as well (Hebrews 12:1-2). Christ’s joy was the same as Stephen’s joy–the joy of bringing praise and glory to God. The joy of having our Master look upon us and say “well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:23). As Christ-followers, we run the race before us because there is an incomparable, indestructible, unending and ever-increasing joy that we lay hold of when we are redeemed by God through Jesus. It is for the joy set before us that we run with endurance.
Death Was Gain
Imagine being a persecutor of this radical group of believers that were non-violent witnesses saying that a particular man who was killed for blasphemy appeared to them, is their long-awaited Messiah and is actually God. You would likely be extremely offended because everything that you had lived your life for and the decisions of your leaders had been woefully wrong in helping you understand who this man who claimed to be God actually was.
This was Saul.
Saul (also called Paul) was trained as a devout Pharisee. He states it this way in his letter to the church in Philippi: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. (Philippians 3:5-6). He was dedicated, however, Saul continues with the next line of his letter saying: But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ (Philippians 3:7).
Saul stood there as the men who stoned Stephen to death laid their garments at his feet. He approved of Stephen’s execution. It wouldn’t be until a short time later that Saul would see for himself his Savior and would gaze into His face (Acts 9). God in His Sovereignty would take one of the greatest persecutors of Christians and turn him into one of the most influential leaders of the early church, taking the Gospel to far away places.
As the sent people of God, we realize with the Apostle Paul that:
For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain
Apply to Life
This week, as you reflect on the message, utilize this section to help you apply what has been taught to your life. Think of friends, co-workers, neighbors, family etc., that you could meet with to have a time of mutual sharing as you open God’s Word together.
This simple acronym (BLESS, B - Bless, L - Listen, E - Eat, S - Speak, S - Sabbath) should help you to frame your life according to the great commandment “love God” (Matthew 22:37) and the new commandment “love your neighbor” (John 13:34). Each time you meet, start by discussing the rhythms of your life according to B.L.E.S.S.
Intentionally bless: Christ-followers, non-believers and those different than you.
Listen to what God is saying to you, through His Word and others.
Share a meal with a Christ-follower and also a non-believer.
Talk to God through prayer and to others about Jesus through witness.
Be intentional about taking time to both rest and recreate.
Discuss the Message
Read: Acts 7:51-60
What was the Holy Spirit speaking to you through the message? How do you think this applies to your life? What action are you taking towards that end?
Why was this council enraged? Were they justified in their anger against Stephen? Were their actions justified?
Take a moment to share about opposition that you’ve faced due to your belief in the person of Jesus.
Does death scare you? Why or why not? Why should death scare someone? And what reason does a Christ-follower have to not fear death?