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Scattered to Speak

Published: 2 weeks ago- 9 June 2024
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SERMON MANUSCRIPT

INTRODUCTION

When it comes to the topic of persecution (suffering for Jesus), there’s a good chance that we all feel differently about it.

Just the other week, someone in our growth group helpfully challenged the group: “Is there really persecution in Australia?” “Are we really being persecuted?” “I think we’re overthinking it”. These comments were received by an awkward silence… ‘Yes?’ ‘No?’ ‘Not sure?’

You see, this moment illustrated the point that we can all felt pretty differently about persecution.

  • For some of us, we feel a bit disconnected. We might think, ‘I’m not getting persecuted’ ‘If I am, I’m certainly not noticing it!’
  • For others us, we feel a bit guilty. We feel guilty because we think that our persecution is a barometer for our maturity. ‘I’m not being persecuted, therefore I mustn’t be a good enough Christian.’
  • For others of us, we’re just not convinced. We’re not convinced that Christians in the West (let alone Mitchelton) are being persecuted at all. We have it easy! We’re playing that card too quickly.
  • Then for others, we tend to the opposite side of the spectrum. We have a bit of a “persecution complex” where we think ‘we’re always being persecuted!’.1
  • Then for others, this topic hits close to home. We know that we’re being persecuted. We’re feeling it. And it’s hard.

When it comes to the topic of persecution (suffering for Jesus), there’s a good chance that we all feel pretty differently about it!
But wherever you are on that spectrum, it’s good to be ready. As followers of Jesus, suffering is part of the deal. Since we’ve been united with Christ-we’ll suffer with him before we’re glorified with him. So, it’s good to be ready for persecution, whenever and however it comes. As Murray Campbell, from Mentone Baptist in Melbourne, helpfully wrote:

“Just because there is no tsunami (of persecution) doesn’t mean that the tide isn’t changing, and neither does the changing tide mean that there’s a gigantic wave about hit the shore”.2

So, be ready.

This morning/evening, as we continue our series in the book of Acts, Luke is going to help us get ready. As we take a closer look at Acts 7:54-60, we’re going to get a picture of what it looks like to suffer well for the Lord Jesus. In this gripping story, Luke portrays Stephen not only as the first martyr for the Christian faith, but a “prototype for us all”.3 He’s “the model disciple”.4 Stephen gives us a very literal example of what it means to “deny ourselves” “take up our cross” and to “follow Jesus” (cf. Luke 9:23).

As we attempt to live for Jesus, and even to suffer for him, Luke encourages and challenges us by retelling this story. By showing us (1) Stephen’s ‘Christ-centred vision’, and then (2) Stephen’s ‘Christ-like prayers. And along the way, we’ll hear from another Martyr or two.

But first, the backstory.

Ever since Acts chapter 4, we’ve seen a conflict going on. A conflict between the leaders of Israel (the Sanhedrin) and the leaders of the church (the Apostles). Across each chapter, things have been heating up! What began as mere threats (cf. Acts 4:21), became imprisonment (cf. Acts 5:18), and then a flogging (cf. Acts 5:40). But here, in Acts 6-7, the murder of ‘Stephen’ brings this conflict to a climax (cf. Acts 8:1).

But, what’s all this fuss about!? You ask!? Why are the religious leaders so serious!? And why is Stephen in serious trouble!?
Well, Stephen is falsely-accused of disrespecting the temple and the law of Moses-two big no no’s! (cf. Acts 6:1-14). So, Stephen stands before the Sanhedrin court (Israel’s highest court) and makes his defence (cf. Acts 7:2-50). But, as Stephen makes his defence, he ruffles a few feathers. By retelling Israel’s history, Stephen makes the point that temple was only temporary (God doesn’t dwell in temples), and that Israel’s leaders have continually rejected God’s messengers.5 He calls them “stiff-necked” and says they have hearts and ears that are “uncircumcised”. Basically, Stephen’s saying that they’re dull, unresponsive to God, and “no better than uncircumcised pagans!”.6 In defending himself (and his gospel), Stephen points the finger back at Israel’s leaders. But it gets him into trouble.

All of which brings us to the final moments of Stephen’s life.

1. STEPHEN’S VISION OF CHRIST

The first thing Luke wants us to notice is Stephen’s Christ-centred vision.

1a. The anger (v54)

After hearing Stephen’s speech, the Sanhedrin are “furious”. They are so deeply impacted that their hearts have been “sawn through”, “cut” and “burst open” by anger and rage.7 They are so angry! They are in a frenzy of outrage, so much so that they perform one of the Old Testament’s most vivid “sign(s) of hostility and rage” (cf. Psalm 35:16; 37:12).8 They “gnash their teeth”. They “gnash their teeth” at Stephen. Their jaws are locked tight, so tight that their teeth are grinding together, tooth upon tooth. They are like a pack of ferocious wolves, ready to devour their prey. I don’t think, you could much angrier!

1b. The vision (v55-56)

But in the face of the Sanhedrin’s outrage, Stephen sees an extraordinary vision, a heavenly vision.
As one who is “full of the Holy Spirit” (in contrast to the Sanhedrin who are clearly not), Stephen gazes into heaven and sees the “glory of God”. He sees something of God’s presence and magnificence. I mean, this is crazy! But do you notice who else is there? Stephen also sees “Jesus standing at the right hand of God”. Stephen sees the crucified, risen, and ascended Lord Jesus “standing” in heaven by God’s side. The one whom the Sanhedrin have rejected, betrayed, put to death-is standing in heaven. So, Stephen declares to the entire Sanhedrin “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God”.

Throughout the book of Luke and Acts, the Lord Jesus is repeatedly depicted as one who is “siting” in heaven (cf. Acts 2:34; Luke 20:42; 22:69). But here, Jesus is depicted as one who is “standing”. Many people have commented on what this might mean:

  • Some think that Jesus is standing to welcome Stephen into his presence.9 Arms open wide!
  • Others think that Jesus is standing to assure Stephen of his support from the heavenly court.10 Jesus is concerned!
  • Then others suggest that Jesus is standing in judgement and opposition to those who oppose the gospel.11 Jesus has moved out of his chair and onto his feet to act!

Now, the reality is that we don’t really know, it’s probably all of these things. Jesus is standing to welcome; Jesus is standing to assure; Jesus is standing to judge. But, either way, Jesus’ is clearly concerned for, occupied with, and focused on Stephen in the midst of his suffering. As one person said, “Heaven is on its tippy-toes.”.12

What an extraordinary vision! God “draws back the veil” of heaven, “so that heavenly realities can be seen”.13 In the midst of violence and opposition, Stephen sees his standing saviour.

In this gripping story, Luke is portraying Stephen as “the model disciple”.14 He’s an example of what it means to “deny ourselves” “take up our cross” and to “follow Jesus” (cf. Luke 9:23). In this moment, Luke retells Stephen’s extraordinary vision. I think, Luke does this to encourage us. As we, the church, face all manner of persecutions (high level or low level; right now at present or sometime in the future), Stephen’s vision is an encouragement that we have a Lord who reigns; a Christ who is exalted; a Saviour who stands in heaven. And when we suffer for the gospel, the Lord Jesus gets off his seat and takes notice. Despite whatever happens to us, He is ruling and reigning.

Perpetua was a young noblewoman from Carthage (in modern-day Tunisia). She was about twenty-two years old, and lived during a time of intense persecution of Christians under Roman Emperor Septimius Severus. Along with several others, including her slave Felicity, Perpetua was arrested for her Christian faith. Despite having a young child, she refused to renounce her beliefs. Perpetua kept a diary during her imprisonment… This diary provides a vivid narrative of her trials and faith. In the dairy she describes her father’s pleas for her to renounce Christianity, her steadfast refusal, and the visions she experienced that strengthened her resolve. On March 7, 203 AD, Perpetua, Felicity, and their companions were condemned to die in the arena. They faced wild beasts and, ultimately, the sword. It’s said that Perpetua is noted for her courage and composure, even guiding the trembling hand of the gladiator who was to kill her.15 But prior to these events, Perpetua wrote this:

“It will all happen [their death] in the prisoner’s dock as God wills, for you may be sure that we are not left to ourselves but are all in his power”.16

Despite whatever happens, our God and Saviour is ruling and reigning.

2. STEPHEN’S PRAYERS LIKE CHRIST

The second thing Luke wants us to notice is Stephen’s Christ-like prayers.

2a. The violence (v57-58)

After Stephen witnesses to the ascended Christ, the Sanhedrin won’t have it. They won’t have it. They don’t want to hear about Jesus. So, they “cover their ears!” and they “cry out with a loud voice” to muffle the message. There is this “freight-train” of noise that is colliding: Stephen’s message of the ascended Christ is colliding with the Sanhedrin’s yelling and screaming to drown it out.17

Then, without any formal verdict… without any sentence or ruling… without any trial… -the Sanhedrin “all together” rush at Stephen. They jump out of their seats, they scramble over one another, and they rush together at Stephen… Then, they drag him to the city gates… And then, they throw him out of the city… This Jewish court becomes an angry mob, bent on silencing Stephen. They are vicious, violent, and unstoppable. As they throw Stephen out of the city, they take-off their cloaks (for better mobility), give them to man named Saul, and begin to stone Stephen… They throw stone upon stone…

2b. The first prayer (v59)

But, as stones are flying at Stephen, he does something astonishing; something noble; something Christ-like: Stephen “prays” or more literally “calls upon”.18 In the midst of the Sanhedrin’s violence, Stephen calls upon the name of the Lord to save him. While they are stoning him, Stephen prays: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit”.
Here, Stephen commends his “spirit”, his “life”, his “soul” to God’s care, just like Jesus did upon the cross (cf. Luke 23:46).19 In this moment, Stephen acts like Jesus. But more than that, Stephen also puts his faith and hope in Jesus. Amidst the violence, he puts his confidence in the ascended Lord Jesus. When Stephen sees the stones flying at his head, he humbly relies on Christ.20
But why’s he doing that? Of all things to do in this moment? Of all things to say or cry out? Why would Stephen pray this?
Well, Stephen knows that he has a Lord who has ascended and who provides life beyond these momentary troubles. He knows that nothing can separate him from the love of Christ… not tribulation, not distress, not persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword… or even stones… Stephen knows that the crucified and risen Lord Jesus stands in heaven. That’s why he prays for Jesus to receive his life.

2c. The second prayer (v60a)

But, as stones continue to fly at Stephen, he continues to do the astonishing; the noble; the Christ-like: he loves his enemies. Stephen falls on his knees and cries out “Lord, do not hold this sin against them”.

Here, Stephen prays for the forgiveness of those stoning him, much like Jesus upon the cross (cf. Luke 23:34). Again, in this moment, Stephen acts like Jesus. Amidst the horrors and violence of others, he prays for their forgiveness, calling upon the Lord Jesus to save them.21 This is radical. Isn’t it?

I mean, why would he do that? Why would he pray for his enemies? Why isn’t he taking revenge!? Why isn’t he calling down judgement!?
Well, Stephen knows that he has a Lord who has ascended and who has the power to either condemn or forgive. Stephen knows that his Lord calls him to “pray for those who abuse you” (cf. Luke 6:28) and to “bless those who persecute you” (cf. Romans 12:14). Stephen knows that his Lord can and does forgive his enemies.22 Stephen knows that the crucified and risen Lord Jesus stands in heaven. That’s why he prays that forgiveness be available to his enemies.

2d. The sleep (v60b)

After he calls upon the Lord, Stephen finally sleeps in death.
Even though the stones fall; beat upon his head; stop his tongue; dash into his lungs; and bruise his heart… Luke says that Stephen now “falls asleep”. In 1874, Charles Spurgeon, said this about Stephen’s death: “With Jesus seen, invoked, and trusted, it is sweet to die.”.23 Stephen is “… like the dying soldier in the hour of battle, who is cheered with the thought, “The King is safe, the victory is on our side; my blood is well spent, my life well lost, to win the victory”… 24 “The horrors are over, the day is done”, all that is left is to sleep and to wake up tomorrow.25

In this gripping story, Luke portrays Stephen as “the model disciple”.26 Stephen is an example of what it means to “deny ourselves” “take up our cross” and to “follow Jesus” (cf. Luke 9:23). In this moment, Luke retells Stephen’s extraordinary prayers.

A story like Stephen’s should probably make us think about our prayers. As we, the church, face all manner of persecutions (high level or low level; right now at present or sometime in the future), what are our prayers? What would your last words be? What are you asking God in moments of persecution? What would your last words of prayer be? How radical if our prayers were more Christ-like? Entrusting ourselves to Jesus. Asking Him to forgive those who hurt us, tease us, exclude us, make our lives more difficult for following Jesus. Imagine those kinds of prayers! Christ-like prayers.

John Huss (1369-1415 AD)

John Huss was born around 1369 AD in a village in Bohemia. His parents gave him the best education they could afford which led to a stint at his local private school, followed by time at the University of Prague. After studying at the University, where he earned a Bachelor of Arts and a Master of Arts, he was ordained as a priest in 1400. Influenced by the preaching and teaching of John Wycliffe, Hus criticized the moral failings of the Catholic clergy, the sale of indulgences, and the Catholic Church’s wealth and power. He called for a return to the Scriptures as the ultimate authority in matters of life and faith. Naturally, his teachings led to a conflict with the Church authorities. In 1411, he was excommunicated. Then, a few years later, Huss was summoned to defend his views where he was then falsely accused and counted a heretic by the Catholic Church. In his court hearing, it was reported that Huss was stripped of his garments, given a paper head-dress to wear on his head (which was painted with devils), that had the inscription “A ringleader of heretics”. Then, only a few days later, while his books were being burned at the doors of the church, Huss was led to the suburbs to be burnt alive at the stake.27 During these things, it was recorded that Huss knelt down, with his eyes lifted to heaven, and prayed:

May your infinite mercy, O my God, pardon this injustice of my enemies… Into your hands, O Lord, do I commit my spirit: you have redeemed me, O most good and merciful God!”.28

Christ-like prayers.

CONCLUSION

As we live for Jesus, and even suffer for him, Luke encourages and challenges us by retelling this story. By showing us (1) Stephen’s ‘Christ-centred vision’, and then (2) Stephen’s ‘Christ-like prayers’-Luke gives us a glimpse of what it looks like to suffer well.

Luke doesn’t retell this story to encourage his readers (or us) to seek martyrdom.29 No, I don’t think that’s the point.
Luke doesn’t retell this story to suggest that this is the only way to be persecuted. No, being stoned to death or thrown to the lions isn’t the only kinds of persecutions-persecution comes in all shapes and sizes!
Luke doesn’t retell this story as a model for evangelism. I don’t think Luke is telling us to go to our friends or family members and say: “You’ve got a stiff-neck” or “Your hearts and ears are uncircumcised!”. That’d just be weird!

But, I do think that Luke retells this story to challenge us and encourage us to live out a similar kind of life and witness to Stephen, in whatever context we find ourselves.30 As we hear this story this morning/this evening, there should be something in us that says “Whoa, that’s the kind of disciple I want to be”.31 ‘I want to be like that’ ‘That’s how I want to do this life’. There should be something of Stephen’s faith; something of his courage under pressure; something of his immense wisdom; something of his dependence on the Spirit; something of his hope in the ascended Christ; something of his love for his haters; something of his non-violent resistance to evil; something of his vision of Christ; something of his final prayers; something of proclaiming eternal life in Christ; something of speaking about the forgiveness available to all; something of his death; there should be something of the Lord Jesus in Stephen-that should be and could be in us-when suffering comes.

This morning/evening, let’s conclude with these words, which sum up so much of what suffering with Christ truly looks like:

“Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary: “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”
(Romans 12:9-21)


Endnotes

1 Ortlund, Keep your eyes on Jesus: A sermon on Stephen’s Stoning, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pL5BuxfKoD4

4 Peterson, Acts of the Apostles, 269.

5 Thompson, Acts of the Risen Lord Jesus, 170.

6 Peterson, Acts of the Apostles, 264.

7 BDAG, 235.

8 Peterson, Acts of the Apostles, 265.

9 Peterson, Acts of the Apostles, 266; Gundry, Commentary on Acts, Chapter 8.

10 Peterson, Acts of the Apostles, 266; Gundry, Commentary on Acts, Chapter 8.

11 Peterson, Acts of the Apostles, 266; Gundry, Commentary on Acts, Chapter 8.

12 Ortlund, Keep your eyes on Jesus: A sermon on Stephen’s Stoning, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pL5BuxfKoD4

13 Peterson, Acts of the Apostles, 265.

14 Peterson, Acts of the Apostles, 269.

15 Foxe, Fox’s Book of Martyrs, 27.

17 Ortlund, Keep your eyes on Jesus: A sermon on Stephen’s Stoning, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pL5BuxfKoD4

18 BDAG, 373.

19 BDAG, 832.

20 Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, Paragraph 75954.

21 Peterson, Acts of the Apostles, 269.

22 Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, Paragraph 75958. Note: Calvin basically says that Stephen’s prayer wasn’t in vain, as Saul becomes recipient of such divine forgiveness.

24 Spurgeon, Stephen’s Martyrdom: A Sermon, https://www.spurgeon.org/resource-library/sermons/stephens-martyrdom/

26 Peterson, Acts of the Apostles, 269.

27 Foxe, Fox’s Book of Martyrs, 153.

28 Foxe, Fox’s Book of Martyrs, 153.

29 Peterson, Acts of the Apostles, 269.

30 Peterson, Acts of the Apostles, 269.

31 Nancy Guthrie, Learning from the Life and Death of Stephen, https://www.crossway.org/articles/learning-from-the-life-and-death-of-stephen/