Stephen’s Death

Jeff Garrison

Skidaway Island Presbyterian Church

August 2, 2015

Acts 6:8-15, 7:51-60

 

Last week, as we learned the Apostles could not do everything by themselves.  Like us, they were human so they began a process to select others to carry part of the load.  They selected seven men who were essentially Deacons, who served the widows of the community. The seven were assigned to see that food was equally distributed to the widows and included Stephen. Today, we learn that Stephen did not restrict his activities to waiting on tables. In addition, he also proclaimed the gospel in a powerful way through signs and wonders.  This caused a group of people to conspire against him.  Up to this point, the opposition against the church seems to have been coming from the Jewish hierarchy who felt their grip on the situation threaten.   Jews, especially Jews who were from different parts of the Empire, having come to Jerusalem to worship, were often drawn into the church.  But we’re going to see here that wasn’t always the case as it appears the opposition to Stephen came from those who lived outside of Israel’s historic boundaries.  This is a long passage and I’m not going to read it all.  Instead, I’ll read the introduction (Acts 6:8-15), then say a little bit about the situation Stephen is in and his defense.  Then I’ll read the ending of the story.

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How do we defend ourselves against a gross miscarriage of justice?  Here, you have a group who trumps up charges against a man who performed some great signs and wonders among the people.  In other words, it’s not just the Apostles who are doing wonders for the gospel.  Stephen joins their ranks, which is threatening to some.  A conspiracy rises up against him and when they find they can’t argue with what’s he’s doing, they conspire to charge him with blasphemy, a crime punishable by death.  The cards are stacked.  I’m sure his angelic face just enrages the crowds even more.  It’s as if he knows what’s going to happen; perhaps he’s seen it before with Jesus, if not he certainly knew what happened.  But he is comforted with Jesus’ presence.  How would we defend yourselves in such a situation?

Stephen could have tried to explain his behavior, but he doesn’t.  He could have recanted his beliefs, but he doesn’t. He could have pleaded guilty by insanity or confusion, but he doesn’t. He could have even begged for his life, but he doesn’t.   Instead of taking the opportunity to defend himself, he uses this occasion to witness to the God who, throughout the centuries, has reached out to the Hebrew people.   When we live in the manner of the gospel, God can use us in powerful ways as witnesses to Jesus Christ.

I did not read Stephen’s defense, which takes up much of chapter 7, but let me tell you some of what he says and encourage you to read it this afternoon.  Stephen refers back to the life of Abraham, telling about how Abram’s faith in God lead him out of Mesopotamia and how, through Abraham great-grandson Joseph, his descendents ended up in Egypt where they eventually became slaves.  Stephen’s epic speech continues with Moses and his difficulty in getting the Hebrew people to listen to him, and on and on again.  He recounts how Israel continues to turn away from God.  Now, let’s understand one thing, Stephen’s speech doesn’t provide any new information—it’s a litany the priests could have recited.  They know the story; it’s the twist that Stephen puts on the end that gets him in hot water.  Stephen links Israel’s past unfaithfulness with their current inability to accept Jesus Christ.  He goes all the way back to how Joseph was mistreated by his brothers, and how Moses was rejected, showing a pattern of how Israel never wanted to hear the messages God was sending.  He also challenges their beliefs concerning the temple, reminding them that God doesn’t need a place to reside, for heaven is God’s throne and the earth is God’s footstool.[1]  Let’s now hear the rest of the story…  I’ll pick up reading at the end of Stephen’s defense.  Read Acts 7:51-8:1a)

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Stephen’s strategy would have caused an attorney to pull out his or her hair.  He ends his defense by going on the offense and accuses his accusers, those with power to judge him, of being a “stiff-necked people.”  “You’ve killed the prophets and now you’ve killed the righteous-one, the Messiah,” he charges in his defense.  The priests don’t want to hear this, nor do the crowd.  In fact, we’re told the crowd ground their teeth at Stephen.  Imagine how this appeared to Stephen, the crowd like rabid dogs with their anger flaring circling in for the kill.  But Stephen calmly looks up and sees a vision of Jesus, the Son of Man, standing at the right hand of God…  As he speaks of his wondrous vision, they refuse to listen and haul him out of the city where he’s stoned.  In contrast to the crowd’s anger, as the stones begin to fly, Stephen appeals, not for mercy for himself, but that Jesus might look merciful upon his tormentors.

Dying while praying for your enemy requires a trust in Almighty God, faith in the righteous work of Jesus Christ, and the presence of the Holy Spirit. Stephen doesn’t fight back.  He looks up to heaven, sees a vision, and is strengthen in his beliefs.  He accepts his fate, trusting in his Lord.  That’s martyrdom—the laying down of one’s life while desiring the best for your oppressors.

There is a problem with this passage, in light of Jesus’ execution.  Why did the priests have to go to the Roman authorities in order to have Jesus sentenced to death? Why is there no recorded involvement of the Romans in Stephen’s stoning?  There are several possible reasons, though we’re really not sure.  One possibility is that Luke, the author of Acts, forgot to include this little detail, not thinking it important.  But this is unlikely, for the Romans tended not to approve on mob actions.  Another suggestion is that this event occurred during the period of time between Pilate’s departure and before his replacement—a time when there were no Roman governors in Palestine.  This also is unlikely for Pilate served in Palestine until 36 A.D., and most scholars think Stephen was stoned before then.

From our text, it appears Stephen’s demise was a spur of the moment action.  With Jesus, there had been a plan to have him killed.  That was also the case with Stephen, but things happened differently.  Jesus, if you remember, stood quietly as the charges were made.  Stephen, on the other hand, gives a testimony that pushes the crowd over the edge and they decide to take things in their own hands and not wait for the Roman’s to act.  If this is the case, the Romans were probably willing to look away and let the crowd silence a perceived troublemaker.[2]

As troubling as it is to think about Stephen’s death, and he’s the first recorded Christian martyr, this passage provides us a wonderful vision of the risen Lord.  Stephen sees Jesus standing to the right of God.  Standing was the posture of a witness—and here you have Jesus standing, witnessing what they are doing to one of his disciples.[3]   I have this image of Jesus standing there, one hand tapping God the Father on the shoulder while the other hand points down at the resulting riot.  Jesus watches and is both horrified and proud of Stephen as he gives his life for the faith.

Stephen’s death provides the catalyst to push believers out of Jerusalem and to allow the gospel to begin its growth in Samaria and to the ends of the earth.  Luke, in telling about Stephen’s death, introduces us to another character who is going to become even more important to the early church, Saul, who’d become known as the Apostle Paul.  The late F. F. Bruce, a British New Testament scholar, suggests that Paul may have been Luke’s source for this story, the one who recalled Stephen’s calm angelic face when he stood facing his accusers and his prayer for forgiveness for his persecutors as the stones rain down.[4]

What can we learn from this passage?  Hopefully none of us are being called to be martyrs, but it does happen.  In one of the lounges at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, over a fireplace, hangs a near life-sized portrait of Don McClure, a former student who was killed in 1977 while serving as a Presbyterian missionaries to Ethiopia.[5]  It hangs as a reminder that gospel work can be dangerous.  We have seen other more recent examples with the killing of Christians by ISIS and other radical Muslin groups.  Should this happen to us, we should have comfort in the knowledge of Jesus’ presence as a witness.  Jesus presence is always with us, to encourage us when things are challenging and as followers of him, we should realize that God can take even horrific events and use them for good.

The story of Stephen’s martyrdom reminds us that we should all be able to comfortably give our testimony, to be able to tell others, including our persecutors and our enemies, what it is that we believe and why.  We need to have confidence in our message.  Our witness may even help open up others to the truth of Jesus Christ.  Like Paul, it might take a while and another intervention from God, but this was the start that set him out on the road to Damascus.

How would you describe what God is doing in the world today through Jesus Christ?  Think about it. Sure, there are a lot of bad things happening.  Do you think God is watching?  Do you think God might be up to something more spectacular?  Trust God, always.  Amen.

 

©2015

[1] Acts 7:49  (Stephen was quoting from Isaiah 66:1)

[2] F. F. Bruce, The Book of Acts (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 169-170

[3] Beverly Roberts Gaventa, Acts (Nashville: Abingdon, 2003), 131.

[4] Bruce, 172.

[5] McClure’s son-in-law and one of my professors at Pittsburgh, Charles Parte, wrote a biography of McClure titled Adventures in Africa (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990).


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