Originally preached in Chapel at Tyndale University College & Seminary on Wednesday, July 5th
Listen to the audio, here:
How did you first hear of Jesus Christ? How was the faith transmitted to you? Do you ever think of what it took for the story of God to reach us in the year 2017, over 2000 years after the death of Christ? It’s easy to say, “well God makes it happen”. This is true, but God doesn’t work in isolation. He partners with us and that partnership doesn’t always seem fair or easy or for that matter bloodless. Much blood has been spilled to ensure the survival and continuation of this faith we call Christianity. We still encounter it today; thinking of our brothers and sisters in Syria and other places. I want today, to give us pause and cause to consider what it has taken to get us the message today. We will do this by delving into the brief but pivotal story of St. Stephen, the first martyr of the Christian church.
To talk about the life of St. Stephen, we need to remind ourselves where we are in the story of Scripture. Through the Word, earth and the heavens were created and life began. The curse entered the world and so did death. The covenants of Abraham and Moses were established, leading to the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ. Humble and meek as a baby was He born. 33 years did He live, teaching and ministering to those he encountered preaching of the kingdom of God and encouraging all to follow Him to a better way. He was then arrested and condemned to death. 3 days later he rose from the dead and then ascended to Heaven. His life, work, and message were his legacy to the church. It was entrusted to them and through pentecost the church began.
As the mission developed it became clear that the Apostles couldn’t and shouldn’t do everything. They then appointed Deacons, of which one was St. Stephen. We don’t know a lot of about Stephen, but what we do know is important and his story his pivotal for the spread of the gospel.
As soon as Stephen is commissioned by the apostles he is described as a man full of faith and the holy spirit. A man who is full of grace and power, who performed many wonders and signs, in his ministry to widows. It was not long however before he drew the negative attention of the Jewish leaders and brought to trial on falsified charges. His face was described as being as bright as an angels.
The persecution of Stephen is a wonderful example of a believer who listened to his master and trusted the teaching he had received. In the gospel of Luke, it records Jesus as warning:
“12“But before all these things, they will lay their hands on you and will persecute you, delivering you to the synagogues and prisons, bringing you before kings and governors for My name’s sake. 13“It will lead to an opportunity for your testimony. 14“So make up your minds not to prepare beforehand to defend yourselves; 15 for I will give you utterance and wisdom which none of your opponents will be able to resist or refute.”
When pressed to refute the charges again him, Stephen didn’t so much offer up a defence as he did a witness. His speech is masterful and leads us through the stories of Abraham, Jospeh and Moses. He reminds them what God did through each of these men. He talks about “our ancestors”, “our people”, how Moses received life-giving words to “passed on to us”, how “our ancestors” refused to listen to Moses. Further he reminds them that it is again “our ancestors” who carried the tabernacle with them through the wilderness. He is constantly including himself in the story – “our ancestors”, “our people”…
Then, he drops the bombshell and signs his own death warrant. The Jewish system was completely connected to the temple system. But, God, as revealed through Jesus is a boundless God. God’s love is so great that he circumvented the temple system and came to earth to bring salvation to His creation.
Stephen says: “The Most High doesn’t live in temples made by human hands… Then, quoting the prophet Isaiah says ”
Heaven is my throne,
And the earth is my foot stool.
Could you build me a temple as a good as that?
Asks the Lord.
Could you you build me such a resting place?
Didn’t my hands make both heaven and earth?
Queue the fireworks. Stephen has just used their own scriptures against them. This is a direct challenge to the temple system of the day. But wait, he’s not done yet. He was a man full of grace, spirit and power and he has’t even mentioned Jesus Christ yet.
Here we see a change in Stephen’s emphasis. No longer is he talking of “OUR” – our ancestors, our people, etc. As one who has accepted Christ’s message he knows the rest doesn’t apply to Him.
He continues and says “YOU stubborn people” – some translations will say stiff-necked – YOU stubborn people! YOU are heathen! – Stephen is not interested in making friends. You are heathen at heart and deaf to the truth. In the greek, the word ‘heathen’ can also mean ‘uncircumcised’. Now, remember, circumcision was the sign of the Abrahamic covenant and an absolutely central component of their faith. He was now accusing them of being surface level believers. That their circumcision was literally, only skin deep. It did not penetrate their heart. We would hear similar words from Paul. In Philippians 3:3, Paul writes: For we who worship by the Spirit of God are the ones who are truly circumcised. We rely on what Christ Jesus has done for us. We put no confidence in human effort, OR in Romans 2:29 “But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God.”
Must YOU forever resist the Holy Spirit.
YOUR ancestors did and so do YOU
Name one prophet YOUR ancestors didn’t persecute
THEY even killed the one who predicted the coming of the RIGHTEOUS ONE – THE MESSIAH
Whom YOU betrayed and murdered
YOU deliberately disobeyed God’s law.
YOU disobeyed God’s law
YOU are HEATHEN!
Stephen clearly wan’t trying to talk himself out of the charge or his impending fate. He has submitted himself totally and completely the will of God, the spreading of the Gospel and calling the Jews to repentance. He was trying to save them. Stephen was directly pointing the finger of guilt away from him and towards them. He was calling them to a life free from the temple system, free from following strict laws, free from a limiting view of God to following the God of boundless love. To the truth that God is Love as personified in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.
Now, Stephens was standing trial in front of the Sanhedrin. The council, essentially the high court. So, we might expect that what came next would be the result of careful thought and deliberation. In fact – to skip to the end for a moment – Stephen’s death does not appear to have been an official judgement, but the result of a mob mentality. We know this because it does not appear that under Roman rule they had the authority to assign someone the death penalty. In John 18:31 the Jewish leaders, in order to convince Pilate to crucify Jesus, tell him they “have no right to execute anyone” and thus the death of Stephen becomes a mob murder, rather than a state execution.
Stephen is granted a great comfort by God, when he looks up and sees the glory of God and sees Jesus standing in the place of honour at God’s right hand. It is curious that Jesus here is standing. Normally we are used to hearing of him sitting at the right hand… Is this just a different way of depicting Jesus? Is he standing in preparation of welcoming home his good and faithful servant, or is this an allusion to Daniel 7: 13-14, which reads.
I kept looking in the night visions,
And behold, with the clouds of heaven
One like a Son of Man was coming,
And He came up to the Ancient of Days
And was presented before Him.
And to Him was given dominion,
Glory and a kingdom,
That all the peoples, nations and men of every language
Might serve Him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
Which will not pass away;
And His kingdom is one
Which will not be destroyed.
Here the Son of Man, as Jesus also describes himself, is standing in judgement and if correct, this may mean that Stephen’s vision means that Jesus is standing in judgement of his accusers. So, no wonder then that his accusers became all the more enraged when he TOLD them what he had seen.
“Look! I see the Son of Man standing in the place of honour at God’s right hand!”
They rushed Stephen, taking off their own clothes – presumably to give them more freedom in the rock throwing arm – and began stoning Stephen – careful to ensure that they did so outside the boundaries of the holy city.
Stephen’s life, once again parallels that of Christ. In his anguish, in his pain, he manages to get out the prayer: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” AND “Lord, don’t charge them with this sin!”
And then he died. But with his death, God was not defeated. His plans that all be saved were not derailed.
With this event, the first great persecution of the church began. The chief persecutor was Saul. Saul thought nothing of Stephen’s death and it seemed to embolden him and energize him to pursue his duties with vicious cruelty and vengeful anger!
What happens next is perhaps one of the most awesome and amazing bits of God’s story and early church.
The believers began to scatter all over; except that is for the Apostles. The greek word for scatter is as for the scattering of seed. Perhaps, like mustard seeds.
As the Gospel of Matthew records, Jesus said “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a grain of mustard seed, which a man took, and sowed in his field; which indeed is smaller than all seeds. But when it is grown, it is greater than the herbs, and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in its branches.”
The grains of mustard seed that were the early church was forcibly distributed throughout God’s creation. The enemy was not winning; indeed this is an amazing example of using the enemy’s tactics against him. The seeds were spread and were planted. The gospel was spoken far and wide to eager ears, evil spirits were cast out screaming and the paralyzed and lame were healed, and many believed and were baptized. And there was great joy! And in the end, of course, Saul himself came to know the Lord Christ, repent of his wicked ways, and spread the Gospel even further, including through his letters so that we too may benefit from his zeal for the gospel.
St. Stephen, the first martyr of the church, did not die for nothing. His death was the catalyst for the spreading of the gospel defeating all the enemies designs. He also helped usher in one of the greatest evangelists of the new testament: Paul.
Stephen trusted in the legacy of Christ. He trusted in His teachings and message. Christ’s legacy of love inspired Stephen to serve widows, to exalt the name of Christ, even unto death. Even his death, with his plea that his murderers not be judged for their actions, was Christ like.
To all the Apostles, disciples, and believers who we read about in Scripture we owe our thanks.
To the early church, who stewarded the faith and the scriptures down through the ages, so that 2000 years later we can be here, living this faith, we owe our thanks. To the preachers of old, down to those who passed the faith on to us, we owe thanks. The faith depends on no one person, but an unbroken chain of disciples, filled with the spirit, who have as faithfully as they could and with the stewardship of the Holy Spirit, passed on the faith from generation to generation.
The question for us today is simple: in all the ways that we can live out our faith, in all that Christ has taught us, are we honouring our Christian past. Do we live in a way that honours our heritage, the blood shed by the Apostles, the witness of the martyrs past and present?
That is our call. To continue to pass this faith, bought by the blood of Christ and those who have come before us, down to the next generation and to encourage each other as we run the race.
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.