Stephen’s Death

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Stephen’s Death

Riverside Indonesian Fellowship
Published by Stanley Pouw in 2022 · 13 November 2022
At the end of Acts 7, we see the first Christian that was killed for his testimony concerning Christ. His name is Stephen. He was a man of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and of wisdom. And he was full of faith. He, along with six other men, were chosen out of the thousands members in the early church for spiritual responsibility to fulfill ministry.

He was also a courageous preacher. He is brought before the Jewish Supreme Court, the Sanhedrin. He has been traveling around in Hellenistic synagogues that were basically occupied by Jews who had come from the Greek world. Particularly the synagogue of the freed men, which included Cyrenians, Alexandrians, some from Cilicia in Asia, and he proclaimed the gospel.

But men stood up and argued with him and they were unable to cope with the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking. So they attacked the man. They accused him of blasphemy against Moses, and against God. They also accused him of blasphemy against the temple and against the law. They said, “We have heard him say that this Nazarene, Jesus, will destroy this temple.”

And, “the customs which Moses handed down and alter the customs of Moses.” The Sanhedrin, along with all of the people of the synagogues who were offended dragged him there, saw his face like the face of an angel. This becomes a tribunal for him. And the high priest asks him in verse 1, “Are these things so?” These accusations, these indictments.

The answer comes in Acts 7:2 - 53. He shows that he is not a blasphemer of God but a true believer in God. He is also not a blasphemer of Moses, but accepts that what God gave Moses was divine revelation. He is not a blasphemer of the law of God; he regards the law for what it really is. Nor is he a blasphemer of the temple. And so, he defends himself against each of the four accusations.

At the same time, he turns the tables on the Jewish Sanhedrin, and all the other Jewish people who were gathered there. And he says, in reality, along with your forefathers, you all have blasphemed God and have blasphemed Moses. You, with your forefathers, have blasphemed the law of God with constant disobedience. You are blasphemers of this temple because you all have turned it into a den of thieves.

And he wraps up his sermon, in verse 51, with a summary indictment. “You men who are stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears are always resisting the Holy Spirit; you are doing just as your fathers did. Which one of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? They killed all those who had previously announced the coming of the Righteous One,” the Messiah.

And it has all come down to you betraying and murdering the Son of God, the Righteous One. Verse 54 - 60, “When they heard these things they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed at him with their teeth. 55 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, 56 and said, “Look! I see the heavens opened,

and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God! 57 Then they cried out with a loud voice, stopped their ears, and ran at him with one accord; 58 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. 59 And they stoned Stephen as he was calling on God and saying, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”

60 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.” Saul was in agreement with putting him to death. And on that day, great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. Some men buried Stephen and made loud lamentation.

In the martyrdom of Stephen, we see the contrast between the hostile, Christ-hating world of the Jews, and the gentle, loving soul of Stephen. The world is in fury, doing its worst. Stephen confronted them boldly, using the sword of the Spirit, and he took that sword and did a masterful job of stabbing it deep into their souls. And they killed him for it. But God honored him for it.

First of all, they were full of anger, and he was full of the Spirit. That becomes obvious in verse 54 into the first part of verse 55. “Now when they heard this, they were cut to the quick, and they began gnashing their teeth at him. But being full of the Holy Spirit, he gazed intently into heaven.” When he began his sermon, there was no question but that they were listening.

He met them where they were, and they were committed to the Old Testament. But as the emphasis of his argument became clearer, their interest turned to fury and horror. It reached a fever pitched level in the life of the church in Acts. They accused him of blasphemy. He turned it around and accused them of blasphemy. Verse 54, “When they heard this, they were cut to the quick.”

What does that mean? Anger and rage. Hell doesn’t produce remorse; it produces anger. That is why it’s forever, because they just keep on sinning. Their fury against God never ever abates. Hell is full of people in a furious rage, furious because of the influences that they followed, furious because of the decisions they made, and furious at God that put them there.

Let us look into the future in Revelation. We look into the time of the great tribulation when the judgments of God come to earth, judgments under the seals, judgments under the trumpets and the bowls. Let us see Revelation 9:20, “The rest of mankind, who were not killed by those plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands, so as not to worship demons.

And there were flashes of lightning and sounds and peals of thunder and an earthquake and a great hailstorm.” That is the seventh and final trumpet of final judgment, out of which come the seven bowls, and the nations are enraged. They are enraged. When God’s grace does not move them, when the glory of the gospel does not change them, judgment infuriates them.

Stephen had indicted them as blasphemers and that activated their fury. They are past feelings. They are damned by their continuous willful rejection. They have hardened their hearts against the truth. They have rejected the miracles and the words of Jesus. Not long before this, they rejected the testimony and gospel preaching of the apostles. They rejected the witness of the early church.

They rejected the ministry and the miracles of Peter. They rejected the miracles and the message of this man, Stephen, and their rejection is so fixed and so deep and so profound and so unalterable that the only response they can possibly have to another message of the gospel that indicts them for their iniquity is outright fury. They couldn’t find words to vent their hatred. Satan possessed them.

This was not a sudden outburst but a growing tension that gradually rose higher and higher as Stephen spoke, and never died until Stephen lie before them dead. These dignitaries had never faced such a prisoner. He seemed more like an accuser than the accused. His message drew blood, but his conscience led him where he regarded no price too great to pay for his convictions.

Stephen no longer faced an orderly council, but a mob whose minds were irrational with hate, and whose emotions were bent on murder. They were not willing, for any man, to expose and reveal the depth of their sin. Herod killed John the Baptist because John pointed to his sin and rebuked him for it. The Pharisees nailed Jesus Christ to the cross because He denounced and exposed their hypocrisy.

The Jews reacted in the same manner toward the apostles, and Stephen is the first of a multitude who, in their exposure of men’s sins, died an awful death at the hands of the sinners they exposed. As Hebrews 3 says, do not harden your hearts through the deceitfulness of sin. This crowd was full of anger, but Stephen was full of faith and of the Holy Spirit.

What does it mean to be full of the Holy Spirit? It means to be under the control of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit comes as a comforter. He comes as a teacher. He comes as a source of power. He comes as a source of wisdom. Notice, it’s a present tense. This was not a momentary experience for Stephen. This is the fullness of the Spirit that literally is characteristic of him all the time.

He was a man in a state of permanently being yielded to the Holy Spirit’s power. So, while his audience has gone completely mad with anger, he remains calm, fully under control of the Holy Spirit. I have never read of the martyrdom of any Christian, who died with rage and anger. Every martyrdom always depicts a kind of rare transcendent, supernatural peace and divine strength.

1 Peter 4:14 says, “If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed because the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you.” Something happens in that hour of martyrdom that is a double portion of the Holy Spirit. Not only is the Holy Spirit living in every believer all the time, but there is a special dispensation of grace that comes on the believer who is under threat of life.

In Luke 12:11 Jesus said, “When they bring you before the synagogues and the rulers and the authorities, do not worry about how, or what you are to speak in your defense, or what you are to say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say.” There is a triple portion of the Holy Spirit. One, to have the Holy Spirit; two, to have a blessing from Him and three, to be given what you are to say.

But there’s more here. Stephen gazes intently into heaven. He saw the glory of God. He saw what the apostle Paul saw when he was caught up to the third heaven. He saw what Moses saw when he was taken up to the Mount and the glory of God was revealed to him. He saw what Peter, James, and John saw on the Mount of Transfiguration. He saw Jesus standing there at the right hand of God.

The invisible God who manifested Himself in light. Stephen saw the light, and standing at the right hand of that light, he saw Jesus. But, there’s something unusual. The references to the Lord being at the right hand of God in the gospels, have Him sitting. The ascended Christ is now seen standing. Why? Because He gets up to welcome one of His own into heaven.

He couldn’t hold the wonder in, and he said in verse 56, “Behold, I see the heavens open up and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” That statement unleashed the final explosion of fury. And those very words were familiar to the Sanhedrin because Jesus Christ had said the same thing in Mark 14:62. Stephen is making the same claim that Jesus made.

Verse 57, “they cried out with a loud voice and covered their ears and rushed at him.” They didn’t want to know the truth. They were blind willfully, and now they were blind judicially. That’s why in Romans 11, it says of them what it says in Isaiah 6, that seeing they couldn’t see, hearing they couldn’t hear, and they couldn’t understand. They couldn’t repent. They couldn’t be saved.

There’s a third set of contrasts: the contrasts between death and life. They were killing. But for Stephen it was only the entrance into glorious life. Verse 58. “When they had driven him out of the city, they began stoning him; and the witnesses laid their robes at the feet of a young man named Saul. They went on stoning Stephen as he called on the Lord and said, ‘Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!’”

The law required in Leviticus 24 that anyone who was stoned be stoned outside the city. The law also provided that stoning was the appropriate sentence for blasphemy. Because the truth is: they had no right to kill anybody. They say around the trial of Jesus, in John 18:31, we can’t kill anybody. They admitted they had no authority to execute. But they set that aside.

Deuteronomy 17:7 says the hand of the witnesses shall be first upon him to put him to death. And afterward, the hand of the people. So, if they’re going to stone someone for blasphemy, the first stones are going to be thrown by the witnesses who give first-hand testimony to the blasphemy. The witnesses laid their robes at the feet of a young man named Saul. Verse 59 says, “They went on stoning Stephen.”

There’s one final contrast between hate and love. The hate, obviously, we see it all the way through in the fury of their stoning him. This humblest of men, sent by God to preach salvation to Israel. All they wanted to do was kill him. But in the middle of this blast of hate, we see the beauty of love. Verse 60, “Then falling on his knees, he cried out, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them!”

He prays for forgiveness for them. This too, like his Lord. Christ said on the cross. Don’t hold this sin against them. His death launched a persecution, but more than that, it affected Saul, who never forgot that day. When he gave his testimony to Timothy, Paul said, “I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who considered me faithful, putting me into ministry, even though I was formerly a persecutor.” Let us pray.


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