Good morning! Welcome to the Lord’s house. Of course the whole universe is God’s house, but this is his house as well and we are his people. David calls us, “The sheep of his pasture.”
We are in a study through the NT book of Acts. We are calling it Basic Christianity. Today we have a reality check. Our study today begins in Acts 6:8ff. From Cain’s murder of Abel to the present, our world remains a very dangerous place and we are called to be faithful witnesses to the Lord in the midst of it all.
Jesus told us, “I am sending you out as sheep among wolves. Don’t be afraid.” When the apostle John was an old man in prison on the island of Patmos he wrote, “Greater is he who is in you than he that his in the world.” 1 John 4:4
Studies estimate that in 2016 over 90,000 Christians were killed for their faith. In the last ten years, over a million Christians have been martyred for their faith. Since most of these estimates come from the five countries of Nigeria, Rwanda, Sudan, Indonesia and China, they are almost certainly short of reality.
So much for the prosperity gospel that says “If you believe in Jesus everything will go “hunky dory” for you. You’ll be safe and happy and healthy and rich!” That’s not what Jesus said! Jesus said, “If you follow me, you will be handed over to local authorities. You will be flogged, persecuted, falsely accused, shunned, stoned, crucified. You will be brought before governors and kings as witnesses to them and to the Gentiles. But when they arrest you, don’t worry about what you are to say or how to say it. For it will not be you speaking but the Holy Spirit speaking through you.” Mt 10:18-20
That word “witness” in the NT is the word “martyr”. Not all witnesses for Jesus will be killed or persecuted for their faith, but most will in one way or another! Why? Because we have a real enemy! His name is Satan. If we are silent, he may not bother us at all. But if we stand up for Jesus, we will draw his fire. This shouldn’t surprise us. We need to be ready.
Just before Jesus ascended into heaven he said, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Acts 1:8
Imagine if we expanded what Jesus said to something like this. “You will be my witnesses, in cancer wards, Alzheimer units, AIDS, tragedies and persecutions and sufferings of many kinds.”
What if instead of complaining “Why is God doing this to me?” we asked the Lord to make us faithful witnesses for him in whatever circumstance he puts us in? Would that be faithful?
Let’s go back to Stephen. Stephen had been sharing Jesus with the people of Jerusalem, particularly those Jews who were not native to Jerusalem. He was praying for people and seeing God work miracles through the name of Jesus. Satan doesn’t like that. One day as Stephen was going about his business, he was confronted by a group of men called the Synagogue of Freedmen. It appears these guys loved to argue and bully others.
But they couldn’t bully Stephen. Stephen knew the Scriptures. He knew that throughout history God’s people had hardened their hearts, rejected his truth, and killed his prophets. Even though God was faithful, his people were unfaithful. Over and over again they rejected him and chased after worthless idols.
Nevertheless, God provided for them, protected them, delivered them and they responded to his steadfast love with complaining and murmuring. The Holy Spirit enabled Stephen to open the Scripture and bear witness to the fact that Jesus was the promised Messiah and that they had killed him, just like God foretold they would.
This group of arrogant scholars thought Stephen was a fool and they could run him into the ground. Instead they found themselves unable to stand up against his testimony. All too often when human beings run out of resources, they resort to violence. It’s part of our sinful nature.
Look at verse 10-14 “They could not stand up against the wisdom the Spirit gave him as he spoke so they secretly persuaded some men to say, “We have heard Stephen speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God.” They stirred up the people and the elders and the teachers of the law. They seized Stephen and brought him before the Sanhedrin. They produced false witnesses, who testified, “This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place and against the law. For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us.” Acts 6:10-14
This should sound familiar. It’s exactly what they did to Jesus. It’s still happening today. If you are a Christian and willing to stand up and be identified with Jesus it will happen to you. They dragged Stephen in front of the Jewish leaders and Stephen faithfully testified to Jesus as the Holy Spirit empowered him. Wouldn’t it be nice if they all fell on their faces in repentance before the Lord? Sometimes that happens, and sometimes it doesn’t!
Look at verse 54. “When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” Acts 7:54-56
In the Creed we confess that Jesus rose from the dead, ascended into heaven where he is seated at the right hand of the Father – so why does Stephen say he saw Jesus standing? F.F. Bruce, one of the great Bible expositors of our day says - “Jesus stands to welcome home his faithful witness. What an honor! Imagine Jesus giving a standing ovation to those who stand for him.”
I have to ask myself, “Who do I stand for? Who am I giving a standing ovation to in the way I live my life?” Who do I honor with words, my actions, my choices? Everyone lays their life down for something. What am I laying my life down for? Does it have any eternal significance?
Jesus laid down his life for me, am I willing to lay down my life for him? Let’s go back to Stephen vs 57. “At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged (Stephen) out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.” Acts 7:57-58
Once again, just like throughout history, men who prided themselves on being so spiritual, so good, better than anybody else, broke the law and illegally, violently executed an innocent man. Why? Because the Lord used Stephen to hold a mirror up in front of their faces so they could see themselves as they really were. But instead of repenting, they choose to reject the Lord’s message and kill his messenger.
Is there any hope for people this sinfully wicked and depraved? Yes! But only in Jesus! Did you notice the name of Saul? Do you know who that is? He’s a young rabbi, top of his class, also a Hellenistic Jew. He later became the Apostle Paul.
Saul never forgot what happened that day. Years later, when he was writing about God’s amazing grace, he testifies to the fact that Jesus forgives even murderers like himself.
The story isn’t done. Vs 59 “While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep. And Saul approved of their killing him” Acts 7:59-8:1
Throughout the ages God’s faithful martyrs have always died, praying for the Lord to forgive those who were killing them. It’s still happening today. Where does that kind of love come from? Not from us. It flows out of us when Jesus comes to live within us.
I can’t help but wonder if some of these early Christians were surprised by Stephen’s death. Maybe they made the mistake of thinking that because Jesus was raised from the dead, the struggle was over. When Jesus called us to be his witnesses in the world, he didn’t only mean every place in the world, he meant in every circumstance in the world!
Life and death and suffering go together. We aren’t in heaven yet. Jesus never promised that those we love will be here tomorrow or that we will be here tomorrow. He did promise that he had conquered death and that he has a place prepared for us, and when we leave this world, he will be standing to meet us and welcome us home.
The suffering and blood of God’s faithful witnesses is never wasted. It is always used to bring new generations of people to faith. The Lord used Stephen’s death to convert the Apostle Paul. What do you think Stephen would say if we asked him if it was worth it?
There are places in the world where our brothers and sisters in Jesus are being crucified and stoned for their faith right now. There are other places where our brothers and sisters are being asked by the Lord to be faithful witnesses for him in the agony of cancer, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, dialysis, grief, and a host of other devastating circumstances.
We don’t get to pick our cross, but we are called to be a faithful witness in whatever circumstance the Lord gives us. Are you willing to do that?
What you do when the time of trial comes depends on what you are doing right now to prepare yourself. Have you invited him to take the throne in your heart? Are you willing to stand for him in every circumstance of your life? Are you willing to let his light shine through you in whatever difficulty you may find yourself in right now? Will you pray with me?