Wisdom Speaks for & Suffers with Christ (Part 2)
Topic: Persecution Passage: Acts 6:8–7:60
We covered a lot of ground last Sunday, the rest of chapters 6 and 7. Specifically we looked at Stephen’s ministry, his message, and his martyrdom. I also told you last Sunday that we’d spend more time today applying what we learned. So today is part two; and here’s the plan. I’m going to summarize what we learned. Then we’re going to look at four ways to apply Stephen’s message and martyrdom.
Stephen’s Ministry, Message, & Martyrdom
So let’s begin by summarizing what we learned last week. We looked first at Stephen’s ministry in verses 8-15. Stephen’s ministry was Spirit-filled. He served not in his own strength, but in the strength God supplied (Acts 6:5, 8, 10). Stephen’s ministry was also holistic. He faithfully represents Christ in both deed and word. He serves tables inside the church (Acts 6:2-5); he shares Christ outside the church (Acts 6:8-10).
Stephen’s ministry also suffered opposition. When you faithfully represent Christ in deed and word, the unbelieving world will oppose you. In this case, the Jews set up false witnesses to lie about Stephen. They charged him with blaspheming Moses and God. More specifically, they didn’t like what he was saying about their law and their temple (Acts 6:11, 13-14). So the high priest questions Stephen in 7:1, “Are these things so?” (Acts 7:1). Those two charges then brought us to Stephen’s message.
Stephen’s message is a defense and an indictment. He summarizes over two thousand years of Israel’s story; and he highlights here and there some very important truths that defend his view of the temple and the law.
What about the temple? If these Jews paid closer attention, they’d see from their own history that God is greater than the temple. More than that, they’d see that the temple was part of God’s much larger plan to dwell with his people in Christ and reveal his glory through Christ. They wanted the temple for their own glory; but the temple was just one small step toward the revelation of God’s glory in Christ.
What about the law? If these Jews paid closer attention, they’d see from their own law that they’re the ones breaking it. They were bearing false witness against Stephen. Not only that, the law itself promised that God was going to send them another Redeemer (Acts 7:37). He’d be a prophet like Moses. Moses said they’d better listen to him (Acts 3:22-23). Guess what? They didn’t listen to him; they crucified him.
So the Jews raised two charges: “Stephen, you’re blaspheming Moses and you’re blaspheming God.” Stephen takes them to Scripture and basically says, “Actually, it’s the other way around. The reason I know it’s the other way around is that you killed Jesus, the one Moses and the temple were always pointing to.” Stephen’s gospel didn’t oppose the law and the temple, but revealed what the law and the temple always pointed to in the first place, God’s glory revealed in Jesus Christ.
They weren’t to trust in the temple for their salvation, but in Christ. They weren’t to trust in the law for their salvation, but in Christ. The indictment is that they’re the guilty ones, not Stephen. Stephen’s guilt has been taken away through Christ. But not theirs. They’re not trusting in Christ; they’re hating Christ.
Of course, that didn’t go over very well. It ends up leading to Stephen’s martyrdom in verses 54-60. Stephen speaks for Christ, and he then suffers with Christ. But it’s not a loss. Rather, Stephen gains Christ in all his glory. Heaven opens for Stephen. He sees the Son of Man, standing ready to judge at God’s right hand. Beholding the glory of Christ gets Stephen through his suffering. Stephen doesn’t lose joy by choosing death with Christ. He gains unspeakable joy at God’s right hand with Christ.
That’s the message of chapters 6-7 in a nutshell. Having summarized it, let’s now apply Stephen’s message and martyrdom in four ways. I’m certain we could draw out more. In fact, Nate Byford drew out several more ways to apply this passage in the prayers he posted on Thursday. But I’ve pulled out four ways that Stephen’s message and martyrdom should mature us as Jesus’ disciples.
Rejecting God’s word and its true meaning in Christ leads to idolatry and is antichrist.
First, let’s learn from Stephen’s message that rejecting God’s word and its true meaning in Christ leads to idolatry and is antichrist. Look at the end of 7:38. It says, “[Moses] received living oracles [this is God’s word] to give to us. Our fathers refused to obey him, but thrust him aside, and in their hearts they turned to Egypt, saying to Aaron, ‘Make for us gods who will go before us. As for this Moses who led us out from the land of Egypt, we don’t know what has become of him.’ And they made a calf in those days, and offered a sacrifice to the idol and were rejoicing in the works of their hands.”
When you hear idolatry, don’t think merely in terms of bowing to statues. We do see that here, but idolatry isn’t merely external. It’s primarily internal. It’s something we do in the heart. Notice, “in their hearts they turned to Egypt.” We’re working through the New City Catechism as a family. Two weeks ago, the Catechism defined idolatry like this: “Idolatry is trusting in created things rather than the Creator for our hope and happiness, significance and security.” You see that here: they were “rejoicing in the works of their hands” instead of rejoicing in God.
What leads to this idolatry? They refused to obey the word of God through Moses. The word of God reveals God as he truly is; it reveals how we relate to him on his terms. Obedience to the word of God leads to the worship of God (cf. Acts 7:7). If we forsake his word, though, we end up creating a god in our own image; and we end up relating to him on our terms instead of his. This leads to idolatry.
But notice further that rejecting God’s word is also antichrist. Stephen preaches Christ with clarity in verse 52—he is the Righteous One whom they betrayed and murdered. Verse 54: “Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him.” Then they stone him.
Stephen was delivering God’s word. He was giving the law’s true meaning in Christ. By rejecting that word, these Jews proved their hatred for Christ. Those who reject God’s word are not only idolaters; they’re antichrist. They side with the kingdom of Satan and Antichrist to persecute Christ and his people. No middle ground.
But here’s a sobering reality we must consider. These Jews are religious people. They read the Scriptures. They have the law. They claim to follow the customs of Moses. If you asked them, they believe they’re following God’s word. They believed they were defending the law and God. And yet they’re idolaters and antichrist. That’s sobering. It’s sobering because I imagine nearly all of us have a fairly positive view of God’s word. We would confess grand things about the authority of God’s word, and the inerrancy of God’s word, and the sufficiency of God’s word.
But there’s a way to approach God’s word that actually rejects its true meaning in Christ. It’s possible to read God’s word, go to Bible studies, teach God’s word, memorize God’s word, come on Sundays to hear God’s word, and yet still walk away an idolater and antichrist—and all because we reject its true meaning in Christ. We either reject Christ’s lordship behind the word, or we reject Christ as the goal of the word.
We reject Christ’s lordship behind the word. Jesus commands us to make disciples of all nations—and the church will find all kinds of creative ways to argue why that doesn’t apply to every believer but only to those with the gift of evangelism. Jesus commands us to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and we’ll seek to justify why our schedules just don’t allow for that to happen. Husbands, Jesus commands us to love our wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself for her, and yet how easy it is to justify our neglect with “busy-ness,” “job responsibilities,” “some needed me-time.”
The Pharisees did this too, “making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down” (Mark 7:13). God’s commands never contradict one another; and he never gives us commands that he doesn’t also provide grace to obey. We don’t have any excuses. What’s really behind our disobedience to his word is idolatry. We replace Christ’s lordship with our own and say, “I don’t have to do what you say.” That idolatry leads us to war against the kingdom of Christ and his people.
Or, we reject Christ as the goal of the word. We can read the word for our own ends. The word can become a great avenue for knowing things about God, but quite apart from knowing God personally. We can use the word to defend our pet ministries, and why everybody else should stop what they’re doing and join this ministry because it and it alone will “save the world.”
Once we approached the word and it was life-giving food for our souls, but over time—because we haven’t been enjoying Christ as its goal and promise—the word can become a means of defending why everybody should be just like you. We even create new commands to squeeze people into our mold, instead of trusting God’s word to conform people into Christ’s mold. How do we keep from going there?
Read and interpret the Bible like Jesus taught his disciples, and like we see Stephen doing here. Reading the Bible rightly includes reading in the fullness of Holy Spirit. Stephen was a man full of the Spirit. Without the Spirit, we remain blind and self-centered in our reading of Scripture. We will read the Bible for our own ends instead of reading it for God’s glory. Pray for the Spirit to fill you and give you true insight. The church in Thessalonica received the word of God “with the joy of the Holy Spirit” (1 Thess 1:6). That’s the way we need to receive the word.
Also, read the Bible from a God-centered perspective. Read Stephen’s sermon again and circle every verb that has God behind it. God is doing everything to advance his purpose. He appears, he speaks, he removes, he gives, he judges, he’s present, he rescues, he sees, he delivers, he sends, he turns away, he drives out, he dwells—the Bible is about God and his purpose in the world, before it’s ever about us.
We must also see that Christ is the goal and climax of all Scripture. The whole of Stephen’s message drives toward Christ. Christ is the key to understanding everything the Bible has to say—and that’s not an exaggeration. Creation points to the new creation in Christ; the image of God in man points to the image of the invisible God in Christ; the flood points to the wrath of God sweeping over Jesus on the cross; the Passover points to lamb who takes away our sins; David points to Jesus’ kingship; Proverbs points to Jesus, “in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col 2:3); the prophets proclaimed Jesus as the Shepherd, King, Branch, Temple, Messiah, Lamb, Redeemer, Priest, Prince, and Peace-giver—and there’s hundreds more connections.
Yes, we still have to work hard to discern exactly how it’s pointing to Christ, but Jesus said it all did in Luke 24 and Stephen follows him. If we read the Scriptures for any other purpose than knowing Jesus Christ and conforming our life to his kingdom, then we don’t read the Scriptures rightly, we will fall into idolatry, and we will become antichrist just like these Jews. But when we do read the Scriptures rightly, not only will we see Christ’s glory, but we will live for him like Stephen did.
Embracing God’s word leads to union with Christ in serving, speaking, & suffering.
That brings us to a second point of application: embracing God’s word leads to union with Christ in serving, speaking, and suffering. God’s word leads Stephen to serve like Christ. Christ cared for the poor (Luke 4:18; 7:22) and taught that “it’s more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). Stephen follows in his masters footsteps. He serves tables for the widows in 6:1-6. A person who chooses not to serve like Christ should question whether he’s truly united to Christ. A true union with Christ will produce service like Christ. Commands to serve and show hospitality will not be a burden, but joyful opportunities to image Christ in the way he came to serve and save us.
Embracing the word also leads Stephen to speak for Christ. In 6:9-10, he evangelizes and debates with people outside the church, in order to win them to Christ. When he’s brought before the authorities, he faithfully preaches the word. In doing so, Stephen joins the rest of the witnesses that Christ said he would empower to spread the gospel in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth (Acts 1:8).
Don’t miss this: the Holy Spirit has a missionary character. He fills his people and they bear witness to Christ. That’s happening with Stephen. He’s a man full of the Spirit; and when people are full of the Spirit, they preach Christ. We must pray for the Spirit to compel us to spread the gospel, beginning where we live, work, and play. Who can you share the gospel with this week? Disciples of Jesus tell other people about Jesus.
We spoke at the last members meeting about church planting. Churches don’t spring up on their own. The gospel must be planted in people’s lives. We enter their lives and we speak for Christ and we pray for conversion. As David Platt once put it, “privatized faith in a resurrected King is practically impossible.” There’s too much good news bound up with the crucified and risen Jesus to be silent.
Embracing the word also leads Stephen to suffer with Christ. I sent you home with some homework last Sunday. I said to read the passion narratives of Jesus in the Gospels and see how many parallels you could find between Christ and Stephen. They’re numerous. Both get accused of blasphemy (Matt 26:65; Acts 6:11). Both get attacked by false witnesses (Matt 26:59-60; Acts 6:13). Both stand before the Sanhedrin (Luke 22:66; Acts 6:15). Both announce the Son of Man in glory (Luke 22:69; Acts 7:56). Both get killed outside the city (John 19:17-20; Acts 7:58). Both ask the Lord to receive their human spirit (Luke 23:46; Acts 7:59). Both ask God to forgive those who mistreat them (Luke 23:34; Acts 7:60). When we observe the suffering and martyrdom of Stephen closely, he becomes a window through which we see Christ.
This is important: union with Christ doesn’t stop with just the benefits of salvation: forgiveness, reconciliation, resurrection hope, glory in a new heaven and earth. Union with Christ also means union with him in suffering.
Turn to Romans 8:16-17. It says, “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” Do you hear what he’s saying? We cannot have the crown without the cross. Christ died for our sins not so that we could escape suffering in this life, but so that we could embrace suffering in the path of love, knowing that our true home is with God in glory.
Colossians 1:24 also helps to understand Stephen’s martyrdom. Paul says, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” What could possibly be lacking in Christ’s afflictions? What’s lacking is the visible presentation of Christ’s afflictions to the world. God intends for that visible presentation of Christ’s afflictions to be filled up through the afflictions of his people—you and me.
That’s why he has a number of martyrs according to Revelation 6—he intends whole lot more to become martyrs as they display Christ’s afflictions to the world. It’s part of how we will reach the Muslim and Hindu peoples of the world. Stephen is the first martyr after Jesus. Stephen’s sufferings serve to fill up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions. He’s displaying the sacrificial love of Christ before others.
Listen nothing about our lives belongs to us, even our own bodies. Stephen’s body was stoned. Even our bodies are set apart for God to do with them as he sees fit in helping the world know his love in Christ. This isn’t limited to Stephen.
There was an English missionary named Helen Roseveare. She died last year at 91 years old. Helen was a doctor and did medical missions in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It was the rape capital of the world when she went to preach Christ. At age 39, she had completed twelve years of missionary work in the DRC and with little results. The people would not listen to her.
Then came a rebellion. Rebel forces were trying to take over and they ended up taking hostages, which included Helen. During her captivity, rebel soldiers brutally raped Helen. Since she was a fair-skinned lady, she also endured greater mistreatment. She began to wonder why this was happening to her—12 years of hard work and sharing Christ with no fruit; and now beaten and raped? What was the point?
At some point, two rebel soldiers came to get Helen from where they were holding her. Here enemies wanted her help. She was a doctor and one of their other hostages was pregnant and having problems. So she went out with the rebel soldiers and came to a place where they were holding about 80 Greek Cypriots hostage. They all knew Helen. She was their doctor for 12 years, but none of them would look up at her. She went through and began to care for the pregnant woman, while she herself was in pretty bad shape because of the beatings and rape. She asked God what he wanted her to do. And here’s what transpired.
She knew English, French, Swahili, Benghala, but not Greek. Some of the Greeks knew English, but the soldiers didn’t know English or Greek. So what she did was give medical instructions to the pregnant woman in the languages the soldiers knew, and intermittently she would share the gospel with the folks who knew English and then translated it into Greek. So these 80 Greeks hear the gospel, while she’s caring for the pregnant woman, and the soldiers just think she’s passing along medical advice. She then leads a prayer, and when she finishes, she overhears a number of the Greeks saying Amen, Amen, and they’re looking up at her smiling.
She said, “All these years she had preached the gospel to them and they wouldn’t listen. But now, since she had suffered worse than they did, they were willing to listen.” Stephen was stoned. Helen was raped. God uses the sufferings of his saints to image Christ and him crucified, so that others will be saved. That’s not to say that we pursue suffering. No, we pursue Christ in the path of love, even if it means suffering. We have to be willing to say, “Lord use us for your glory,” while knowing what that may very well cost. The cost, though, isn’t much in comparison to what we gain.
Suffering and martyrdom pointedly display the preciousness of Christ and inspire greater faithfulness to Christ.
That leads to a third application: suffering and martyrdom pointedly display the preciousness of Christ and inspire greater faithfulness to Christ. This episode with Stephen isn’t meant to send you out thinking, “Wow, I could never do that.” That’s true, you can’t do it on your own. But we can’t stop there, or we risk missing how the suffering and martyrdom of others should actually serve our faith.
First of all, it displays the preciousness of Jesus. The value of something is measured by what we’re willing to give in order to have it. Consider Jesus’ parable of the treasure in the field: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (Matt 13:44). Where do we see the worth of the treasure displayed? The worth of the treasure is displayed in the man selling everything to make it his own.
The same is true of the Christian life. God displays the worth of Jesus Christ when his people are willing to give up everything to have him. Stephen gives up his life in this world, and it displays for us how precious Jesus truly is. Stephen’s death should serve your faith by pointing you once again to Jesus’ worthiness. When you see he is worthy, you too will follow Stephen in giving everything to have Christ. Going back to Helen Roseveare—she once said that sometimes we ask the wrong question: the question isn’t so much “Is it worth it?” but “Is he worthy?”
Suffering and martyrdom also inspire greater faithfulness. We’ll see this implicitly in the way those who are scattered go on preaching the word in Acts 8. But we see this explicitly in Paul’s letter to the Philippians that he writes from prison.
Paul is sharing how his imprisonment has actually served to advance the gospel, and one of the results he lists is this: Philippians 1:14, “and most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.” These are the Christians back in Rome who aren’t in prison. Paul’s imprisonment doesn’t cause them to run and hide; it actually gives them confidence and more boldness to speak the word without fear.
When you look at Stephen’s martyrdom, it should inspire greater faithfulness to Christ. Even in the smaller, mundane things of life—which is where we live most of the time—Stephen’s death points to Christ and says, “Be faithful to him. He is worthy of every ounce of your being. Be faithful.”
Stephen doesn’t even get to see the results of his preaching. But that’s what helps us. We’re not in this to see the results. We’re in this to know Christ and to have more of Christ, regardless of the results. Some of us have been betrayed by friends. Some of us feel drained by investing in friendships, only to see those friends move away. Some of us have been hurt by the very people we’ve loved most. And we can get to places where we say, “Why bother investing anymore? Why bother loving anymore? Why bother serving if only two people show up?”
How easy it is to be faithful until someone betrays us and things get uncomfortable. Friends, Stephen’s martyrdom says that Jesus is worthy of our love and faithfulness, regardless of the results we witness in this life. There’s an old saying that says, “The seed of the gospel may lie beneath the earth until you do, and then spring to life.” We have to be okay with that. Jesus is worthy of our faithfulness, no matter what.
Christ is near to those conformed to his image in trial/tribulation.
Lastly, we learn from Stephen’s martyrdom that Christ is near to those conformed to his image in trial. God is present opening heaven to him. The Spirit is there filling him in verse 55. Jesus is standing at God’s right hand in heaven, but he’s near to hear Stephen’s request to receive his spirit. Just as Jesus promised in Matthew 28:20, “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
Jesus never commissions us without going with us. He will be present till the very end, no matter what we face. It’s as Romans 8 says, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” We’re not more than conquerors because of our devotion to Christ, but because of his devotion to us.
It goes on: “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation [which is another way of saying, you fill in the blank—angry persecutors, chronic illness, oppressive bosses, financial insecurity, the loss of a dear friend coming very soon, nothing], will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Stephen knew Jesus’ nearness through the worst. Helen knew Jesus’ nearness through the worst—even through the trial of rape.
Whatever trial or tribulation the Lord will bring your way, Stephen’s martyrdom reminds us that he will be near, giving us every grace necessary to persevere. It will be as our memory verse promises us this week: “…after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen.”