A Faithful Witness

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Acts 6:8-15
Acts 7:54-60

“The blood of the martyrs is the seed from which the church grows,” said the church father Tertullian. This certainly was true about the church’s very first martyr, Stephen.

“I came not to bring peace, but a sword.” It might surprise you to learn that the man who spoke those words was no political firebrand or violent revolutionary. It was the Prince of Peace himself, Jesus Christ. What could he have meant? Well, Jesus didn’t mean that he was encouraging hostility and bloodshed between people, nor did he condone the use of illegitimate force. This was simply his graphic way of pointing to a truth about his presence in the world. The coming of Christ would bring division among people. Just like a sword that divides as it cuts, so Christ’s coming would divide – it would divide families, communities, societies, countries. The division would occur as individuals chose for or against Jesus Christ. And after the division would come persecution. The sword would be turned against Jesus’ followers, as many of them would experience the same kind of suffering he did. The first Christians were harassed, slandered, beaten. Their property was illegally seized or destroyed. They were imprisoned, or sent into exile. And some were killed because of their faith in Christ.

Jesus wanted to make sure that all those who became his disciples knew what they were getting into. He wanted them to understand that Christian discipleship is costly. Opposition and even persecution are to be expected by those who follow a crucified Messiah. That’s why he spoke this warning about the sword. His words were prophetic. It was not long before they were fulfilled in fact among the community of believers in Jerusalem.

A MAN FULL OF GOD’S GRACE

The church there had appointed additional leaders to help with the practical work of ministry. These deacons, as they came to be called – the word means “servant” – had to be able to make sensitive and wise decisions. And they needed to be skillful administrators. But at the same time they had to be filled with the Holy Spirit, possessing spiritual gifts and demonstrating spiritual qualities.

The first of them, both in time and importance, was a man named Stephen. He was highly qualified for this important position, for he was, according to the book of Acts, “a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit” (6:5). But he had many other kinds of gifts as well. He became one of the Jerusalem church’s leading spokesmen. Stephen also seems to have been the first Christian apologist. He defended the truth claims of the Christian faith and debated the meaning of the Old Testament scriptures with those who attacked the new Christian understanding of them.

Like almost all of the first Christians, Stephen was Jewish by birth. Stephen’s name, however, is Greek. Since he was chosen to represent the Hellenist party within the fellowship of believers, we know he must have been culturally a Greek himself. His mother tongue probably was Greek rather than Hebrew. Beyond this we know very little about Stephen’s life. We don’t know where he came from, or how he became a Christian, or how he happened to be living in Jerusalem. Many Hellenistic Jews, though born and raised abroad, immigrated to Israel later for religious reasons. Perhaps that is what Stephen had done before he was attracted to the new faith that focused on Jesus as Israel’s Messiah.

The absence of information about Stephen’s life is more than compensated by what we are told about his faith and his character. He was a spiritual giant! Listen to the way Luke describes him.

Stephen was full of God’s grace and power. He did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people. . . . Some . . . began to argue with Stephen but he was too wise for them. They couldn’t stand up against the Holy Spirit who spoke through him.

Acts 6:8-10, NIrV

Luke’s brief account of Stephen’s ministry in Jerusalem makes it clear just how good and great a man he was. Stephen was, before anything else, spiritual – not in the currently popular sense of being vaguely mystical in a New Age sort of way, but in the solid, biblical sense of walking in step with the Holy Spirit. “Spirituality” is something of a fad these days. The word is often used to include anything and everything, from eastern philosophy to nature worship to occult practices. By contrast, genuine spirituality has to do with having a relationship with the one true God. That comes through experiencing the Spirit, spelled with a capital “S” – the personal Holy Spirit. Stephen’s spirituality was of that kind. He was a man of the Spirit, a man of God, and, therefore, a godly man. Luke says he was full of the Holy Spirit and power.

This power was evident in the great wonders and miraculous signs (v. 8) which the Lord did through him. Stephen was also full of grace (v. 8), faith (v. 5), and wisdom (v. 10). All those words are used in Acts 6 to describe him. In many cases gracious people are not very powerful, and powerful people are not very gracious, but Stephen was both. In addition to everything else, he had great wisdom and a faith that made him fearless – all in all, a very potent combination. Jews in Jerusalem, who debated the truth of the gospel with him, found it difficult to contradict (v. 10).

A FAITHFUL WITNESS

The Greek word for “witness” is martyr. Originally, a martyr was someone who was able or qualified to testify to the truth about something. A Christian martyr, in the early days of church history, was any person who could give witness to the meaning and reality of Christ’s death and resurrection. It was because so many of these first Christians sealed their testimony to Jesus Christ with their own blood that the word came to have the specialized meaning it bears today. It was because Stephen was such a faithful “martyr” in the original sense, that he became the first martyr in the newer sense of the word. He was killed for his effective witness.

Trouble soon arose between Stephen and some of the Hellenistic Jews living in Jerusalem, Jews from Cyrene in North Africa, Alexandria in Egypt, and the provinces of Cilicia and Asia in Asia Minor (v. 9). Arguments broke out over the message Stephen was proclaiming about Jesus the Messiah and the meaning and the fulfillment of the Hebrew scriptures. It was inevitable that the Hellenistic community (Greek-speaking Jews), now being divided between those who had embraced Jesus as believers and those who still clung to the Jewish religion, would be drawn into conflict. Allegedly, one of the places from which these Jewish opponents of Stephen came was Cilicia. The chief city of Cilicia was Tarsus. It’s reasonable to suggest that young Saul of Tarsus might have been one of the scholars who engaged in these theological debates with Stephen, particularly in view of Saul’s later brief appearance in the story (7:58). Could it be that the man who would later become Paul, the Apostle, first heard the Christian gospel from Stephen as they argued together in their synagogue over the significance of Jesus Christ and the prophecies of the Old Testament? It could be true.

But, the tone of debates soon shifted significantly. Open conflict broke out when Stephen’s opponents could not overcome him by argument. Luke says “they could not stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by whom he spoke” (v. 10, NIV). Stephen was getting the better of them in those synagogue debates. So his frustrated opponents turned to force. Stephen was arrested and brought to trial before the Sanhedrin, the high Jewish Council, on a charge of blasphemy. His enemies resorted to conspiracy and perjured testimony in order to destroy him, as Luke reports in Acts 6.

Then in secret they talked some men into lying about Stephen. They said, “We heard Stephen speak evil things against Moses. He also spoke evil things against God.” So the people were stirred up. The elders and teachers of the law were stirred up too. They arrested Stephen and brought him to the Sanhedrin. They found people who were willing to tell lies. The false witnesses said, “This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place [and] against the law . . .” All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked right at Stephen [and] they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.

vv. 11-15, NIrV

Maybe you noticed some of the striking similarities between this account of what happened to Stephen and the earlier history of the trial and death of Jesus. Both men were innocent victims of the hostility of the leaders in Jerusalem who saw them both as a threat to their religious and political power. Both were accused by false witnesses. Both were charged with blasphemy based on a distorted report of their teaching (and in both cases involving a supposed threat to the temple in Jerusalem.)

Later, the parallels between Stephen and Jesus got even closer. After a lengthy speech before the court in which he reviews nearly the whole of Old Testament history to make the point that Jesus is the culmination of all God’s dealings with his people, Stephen concludes by passing judgment upon his own judges (vv. 51-53)! Their hostility toward him and the other followers of Jesus is really opposition to God himself. These leaders, says Stephen, are just like those in past generations who persecuted and killed the Lord’s prophets. And, they have killed the Lord himself also.

If Stephen’s bold proclamation that Jesus was the Messiah offended his enemies, his condemnation of their hypocrisy absolutely enraged them. Luke says that the whole Sanhedrin got up. Blind with anger, grinding their teeth at him, they rushed out and stoned Stephen to death. Even as they were throwing stones at him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he fell on his knees, crying out, “Lord! Don’t hold this sin against them!” When he had said this, Luke says, Stephen died. (Acts 7:54-60).

Once again, just like his Lord, Stephen forgave his executioners, and commended his spirit to God as he died. Significantly, Stephen did so by calling on the Lord Jesus, not God the Father. Already Christians understood clearly that Jesus and God were one.

Stephen’s story is one of boldness, faithfulness and courage. It is all the more moving when we remember that he was only the first of many millions through the centuries who likewise have paid the ultimate price for their loyalty to Jesus Christ. Religious persecution is a terrible thing no matter who its victims are. The Christian church historically has not been innocent of unfair religious oppression, as most people know. But, the ideal of religious freedom grew out of the Christian gospel. It has long been practiced in those places where the gospel is truly integrated into life. But sadly, in many other places religious persecution continues, most often with Christians as its target.

Researchers tell us that there have been more Christian martyrs in our century than any before it, in fact, more than in all previous centuries combined. Martyrdom continues to occur in many places in the world today, even as we enter the final year of the millennium. Just in the past few months, in places like Indonesia, China and India, Christians have been the victims of false accusations and mob violence. They have died for their faith just as Stephen did.

That’s a sobering fact which is hard for many of us to believe as we sit in our warm and comfortable homes and attend our safe churches. We don’t run much risk of martyrdom. We need to be praying and remembering those who do face physical abuse, oppression and death for their faithfulness to Jesus Christ.

The gospel needs Stephens. If you are a Christian, are you willing to speak clearly for Jesus Christ? Could you be a martyr?