Wednesday, May 14, 2014

KILLING STEPHEN (Acts Chapter 7)

Acts 6:5, “Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit.”
Acts 7:51, “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit.”

Martyr: noun One who, by his death, bears witness to the truth of the gospel.  Stephen was the first Christian martyr (Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language; 1828 Edition).

Foxe’s book of Martyrs chronicles the testimonies of saints down through the centuries who suffered martyrdom as a direct result of their faith in Christ.  Stephen’s name, the first martyr in the church, is mentioned early on in the book.

Stephen was a man who was full of the Spirit (Acts 6:3).  Being filled with the Spirit, he was also full of “wisdom,” “faith,” and “grace and power” (Acts 6:3, 5, 8).  By the Spirit he was doing “great wonders and signs among the people” (Acts 6:8).  He was a man much used by God to bless others.

Stephen stood out amongst the brethren and was no doubt much loved by them (Cf. Acts 6:5), but there were others who did not like him at all.  A group of Hellenistic Jews “rose up and disputed with Stephen.”  “But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking” (Acts 6:10).  So they instigated others to make scandalous reports about him.  They stirred up “the people and the elders and the scribes” (Acts 6:12).  They “seized him and brought him before the council” (Acts 6:12).  False witnesses were brought forth and accused him.  The high priest asked “Are these things so” (Acts 7:1)?  Most of the rest of chapter seven is Stephen’s response.

Stephens’ defense before the Sanhedrin is the longest discourse in the book of Acts.  In it he recited the history of Israel and made reference to Abraham, Joseph, Moses, and Israel’s apostasy.  Some have wondered about the specific purpose to which Stephen spoke and why he spoke at length regarding the history of the Jewish people.  But since he had been specifically accused of blasphemy against the temple and the Law (Cf. Acts 6:13), in his defense he affirmed his own understanding and appreciation regarding the divine origins of these things.  He spoke both of Israel’s history and their history of rebellion against God (Cf. Acts 7:35-50).

Stephen applied the matter of Israel’s historical apostasy directly to his listeners.  With Spirit-imparted boldness he indicted them as being responsible for the death “of the Righteous One” (Acts 7:52).  At that point in Stephen’s defense his audience became “enraged, and they ground their teeth at him” (Acts 7:54).  He was privileged, by the Spirit, to be granted a vision of “the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:55-56).  His report of what he saw only intensified their anger.  In a state of rage they screamed, covered their ears, and mobbed him (Cf. Acts 7:57).  They drug him out of the city and stoned him (Cf. Acts 7:58).  As they were stoning him, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts 7:59).  As he was dying, he spoke in like-manner to the One who had died to forgive his own sins, saying, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60).

Martyrdom is something that sometimes happens when those who are Spirit-led meet up with those who are Spirit-opposed.  Stephen was Spirit compelled to proclaim the truth.  His listeners were compelled by another spirit to squelch his witness.  They killed the messenger, but not the message.  Saul was there and “approved of his execution” (Acts 8:1).  But Saul, that great persecutor of the church, would later be saved and befriend himself to Stephen’s Savior.  On the day of Stephen’s death there arose “a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria” (Acts 8:1).  The church was scattered, but those “who were scattered went about preaching the word” (Acts 8:4).  That great persecution, initiated in Stephen’s martyrdom, only worked to expand the outreach of the church.   They shut up Stephen, but not the Spirit.  And Stephen’s legacy—as a bold faithful witness to the truth—lives on to this day.

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