“Stephen Is Faithful to Death"
Lesson Text: Acts 7:51-8:1
Background Scripture:Acts 7:1-8:1
Devotional Reading:Ephesians 6:13-20
Acts 7:51-60 (KJV)
51Ye stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do ye.
52Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted? and they have slain them which shewed before of the coming of the Just One; of whom ye have been now the betrayers and murderers:
53Who have received the law by the disposition of angels, and have not kept it.
54When they heard these things, they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed on him with their teeth.
55But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up stedfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God,
56And said, Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God.
57Then they cried out with a loud voice, and stopped their ears, and ran upon him with one accord,
58And cast him out of the city, and stoned him: and the witnesses laid down their clothes at a young man’s feet, whose name was Saul.
59And they stoned Stephen, calling upon God, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.
60And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep.
Acts 8:1 (KJV)
1And Saul was consenting unto his death. And at that time there was a great persecution against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered abroad throughout the regions of Judaea and Samaria, except the apostles.
To comprehend the importance of being both courageous and gracious in letting others know about Jesus.
To examine the rage that resulted in the murder of Stephen, as well as his complete confidence in Christ.
To pray for courage to stand firmly in the face of opposition by non-believers.
HOW TO SAY IT
San Jose del Guaviare Sahn Ho-say del Gwah-vee-ar-ay (rolling the “r”)
On September 21, 2009, a group of armed men gathered outside the home of Manuel Camacho in San Jose del Guaviare, Colombia. The gunmen were members of The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a Marxist group that has been waging a guerilla war against the Colombian government since 1964.
Camacho was a minister working with a church in the village of Chopal, an area controlled by the FARC. He had been told that his congregation must dissolve. Defying these threats, Camacho continued to minister. He participated in a public revival meeting during which several FARC members accepted Christ. Camacho apparently believed that FARC had finally accepted his efforts and that the gunmen had come to discuss the terms under which he could continue his work.
When Camacho stepped outside, however, he was shot five times. According to one report, his son and his wife dragged the dead body beneath a tree. The son said, “Don’t worry; Dad died for Christ and now he is with Christ.”
Martyrdom is more common today than ever. One study claims that some 70 million Christians have died for their faith since the first century A.D., and that about two-thirds of these were killed in the twentieth century alone. Christians who live in areas dominated by totalitarian governments and religious extremists face daily the threat of persecution. Such persecution takes the forms of exclusion from social and economic life, violence, and murder. For many believers, confessing Christ comes with serious consequences. This should cause us to ask whether we too would be willing to suffer incarceration, physical harm and even death for our faith.
Time: A.D. 32
Last week’s lesson introduced us to Stephen. We can offer the additional note that although Stephen ended up being the first martyr after the establishment of the church, he followed in the footsteps of Old Testament martyrs (see Luke 11:51). Sadly, martyrdom seems to have been not uncommon between the times of the Old and New Testaments.
We pick up where last week’s lesson left off. Stephen had been brought before the Sanhedrin on charges of speaking against Moses and God. The charges are further defined in Acts 6:13, 14, where against Moses means “against the law"… the customs which Moses delivered; and against God means “against this holy place” (the temple). Stephen’s defense revealed his thorough familiarity with biblical history. As today’s lesson picks up, Stephen has shifted from defense to counter charges.
Countercharges (Acts 7:51- 54)
1. Did Stephen display the wrong attitude in communicating stern indignation towards the Jewish leaders who continued to resist the Holy Spirit? (Acts7:51)
Stephen’s defense (Acts 7:2-50) has relied on facts from history and doctrine. His countercharges move to application: the Jewish leaders refuse to listen to God’s truth. Stephen highlights the seriousness of their sin by using several word pictures that describe their resistant attitude.
The word stiff-necked conveys the image of an animal that refuses to submit to a yoke or bridle. Both God and Moses had used this term to describe the Israelites (see Exodus 32:9; 33:3-5; 34:9). To be uncircumcised in hearts and ears compares the resistant Jews with pagans (see Romans 2:28, 29). Stephen is referring to an attitude. To be uncircumcised in heart represents having wrong feelings and will (Leviticus 26:41; Jeremiah 9:26), while to be uncircumcised in ears indicates having an unwillingness to listen to truth (Jeremiah 6:10).
Because Jesus, Stephen, and the prophets before them spoke by the Holy Spirit, a refusal to listen amounts to a rejection of God himself (Isaiah 63:10). In saying as your fathers did, so do ye, Stephen associates his current audience with the ancient Israelites he has described in Acts 7:23-43. Clearly, Stephen is now speaking as a prosecutor, not as a defendant.
What Do You Think?
Under what circumstances, if any, should our response to the enemies of Christ include characterizations and labels such as “stiffnecked” and “uncircumcised”? What are the dangers of such an approach?
Talking Points for Your Discussion
Proverbs 15:1; Matthew 12:34; 15:14; 1 Peter 3:15; Jude 12, 13
Persecuting the Prophets (Acts7:52, 53)
2. Why do you think Stephen boldly asked a question which he knew would expose him to danger? (vs. 52, 53)
Stephen rhetorically asked, whether there ever was a spokesperson for God that the ancestors of the Sanhedrin did not persecute. Stephen declared that the Council’s predecessors were even guilty of murdering the prophets who foretold the advent of the “Just One” (Acts 7:52), which is a reference to Jesus of Nazareth.
The irony is that the Mosaic law the Council members so highly prized contained prophecies about the coming of the Savior. Put differently, it was the members of the Sanhedrin, not Stephen, who were guilty of violating the law and desecrating all that it stood for.
Stephen was convinced that the Gospel was true, and this must have given him the courage to proclaim the Good News to others. His gratitude for what God had done in his life also may have given him the boldness to expose himself to danger, especially as he told people about the Lord Jesus. Most importantly, the Savior enabled Stephen to be courageous in his witness to others. Even when he stood before such an imposing and authoritative group as the Sanhedrin, the Spirit empowered him to be forceful in his witness. (Cook)
Angry Reaction (Acts 7:54)
3. What was the response of the members of the Sanhedrin? (v. 54)
When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. Stephen’s sharp accusations provoke a sharp response. Language similar to cut to the heart appears at Acts 2:37. There the Pentecost crowds, convicted by Peter’s explanation of their responsibility for Christ’s death, ask, “What shall we do?” That response was driven by a sense of shame and guilt. But that is not the nature of the response here! The members of the Sanhedrin are not convicted, but infuriated (compare John 9:34).
Notably, Luke (the author of Acts) has not recorded any response by Stephen’s audience before this moment. Some commentators conclude from this that the Sanhedrin is initially impressed by Stephen’s discussion of Jewish history and perhaps are favorably inclined by his remarks on Moses and the temple. They become angry only when he accuses them personally of hard-heartedness.
It seems more likely, however, that Luke simply wishes to indicate that Stephen has reached the point of no return. Realizing that speaking the truth will likely cost him his life, Stephen continues to press his point as he sees that the members of the Sanhedrin are not responding positively. We see increasing hostility on their part and further reactions in the coming verses (Acts 7:57, 58).
Stephen’s Heavenly Vision (Acts 7:55, 56)
4. What unique opportunity was given to Stephen? (v. 55)
Despite the rage of the Sanhedrin, Stephen remained under the complete control of the Holy Spirit. 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. Accused of violating the customs of Moses, Stephen, like Moses, is privileged to see God’s glory (Exodus 33:18-23). In the ancient world as today, the right hand is a place of special honor (see Matthew 26:64; Ephesians 1:20; Colossians 3:1).
While the “Son of Man” (Acts 7:56) is customarily pictured as seated (Psalm 110:1) at the Father’s right hand, some have suggested that the Messiah had risen on this occasion to welcome the first martyr of the church. Others think Jesus was testifying on behalf of Stephen.
What Do You Think?
Though we may not see Christ as Stephen did, how can we know He hears us and is with us as we boldly stand up for Him?
Talking Points for Your Discussion
In light of past experiencesl In light of encouragement by fellow Christians
In terms of inner peace l In terms of biblical promises and answered prayers
5. What does Stephen say to the Sanhedrin council and other witnesses? (v. 56)
“Look,” Stephen said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing on the right hand of God.” Stephen now verbalizes what he sees in verse 55. Stephen vision associates Christ with God himself, a confession that he must know will not help his case before the Sanhedrin. Jesus himself had been convicted of blasphemy before this group for associating himself with God (Matthew 26:64-65 Luke 22:69-71). One can only be impressed with Stephen’s courage in the face of deadly opposition.
The Stoning of Stephen (Acts 7:57-60)
6. Describe the Sanhedrin's "moblike" actions taken against Stephen. (vs. 57, 58)
Stephen’s words were so blasphemous to the religious leaders that they put their hands over their ears and drowned out his voice with their shouts (Acts 7:57). Perhaps with the fury of an uncontrollable mob, the Council rushed at Stephen, hauled him out of Jerusalem, and began to throw stones at him. The Jews do not have legal authority to impose capital punishment—the Romans reserve this right for themselves (John 18:21). Yet Stephen’s death is more the result of an impulsive mob action than that of an official proceeding. In their rage, the Jewish authorities believe that Stephen’s blasphemy deserves immediate and deadly consequences.
Though he faced imminent death, Stephen demonstrated before his antagonists what it truly meant to honor the Lord. Stephen’s desire was not to perpetuate a dead institution and its lifeless traditions. Rather, he sought to please God, regardless of the circumstances or the cost to himself. While these things were taking place, the official witnesses took off their outer garments and laid them at the feet of a young man named “Saul” (v. 58) of Tarsus. (As noted in last week’s lesson, He is later called Paul in Acts 13:9) He was a Pharisee and associated with the Sanhedrin (see Phil. 3:5). It’s possible Saul was an instigator of Stephen’s trial (see Acts 8:3; 9:1, 2).
While Stephen’s speech obviously does not have much if any immediate impact on Saul, the arguments about the law and the temple will become foundational to Saul’s (Paul’s) own ministry. He also will have a vision of the risen Christ (Acts 9:1-8). Like Stephen, Saul (as Paul) also will defend himself against charges involving the law and the temple (25:8). Also like Stephen, he will affirm that God “does not live in temples built by human hands” 17:24). Stephen’s speech thus will be echoed in ways that he does not live to see. Saul’s memory of this day will not fade (22:20).
7. Describe Stephen’s reaction while they were stoning him. (vs. 59, 60)
While Stephen was being stoned, he made two dying requests. First, he prayed that the Messiah would receive his spirit (Acts 7:59). The comparison to our Lord’s dying prayer is too striking to be overlooked (see Luke 23:46). Just as the Son had committed Himself to the Father, so Stephen cast himself upon Jesus. Thus, to Stephen’s dying breath, he confirmed the deity of the Messiah. Second, while Stephen knelt on the ground, he prayed for his enemies. He asked the Lord not to hold his executioners guilty for what they had done (Acts 7:60). This petition echoed Jesus’ cry at His crucifixion (see Luke 23:34), Stephen, like his Master, ended his life by returning forgiveness for vengeance, and love for hatred. (Cook)
What Do You Think?
How can Christians be more effective in praying for and interacting with enemies of the Gospel?
Talking Points for your Discussion
Exodus 8:9, 28; Proverbs 24:7; Jeremiah 7:161; 11:14; 14:11; Matthew 5:43-48
Romans 12:20, 21;1Thessalonians 5:15
Stephen’s Legacy (Acts 8:1)
8. What did the death of Stephen trigger? (Acts 8:1)
Stephen’s trial sparks a period of persecution. This persecution forces many Christians to leave Jerusalem; they preach the gospel as they go. The preaching eventually reaches Jews (Acts 11:19), Samaritans (8:4, 5), and Gentiles/Greeks (11:20) throughout the regions of Judaea and Samaria. At this point, the persecution seems to be localized against the church which was at Jerusalem. Thus by remaining in the city the apostles are choosing to stay where the situation is most dangerous.
Stephen’s willingness to die for his faith ends up affecting the world in ways he could not have imagined. About A.D. 197, some 165 years after Stephen’s death, the Christian writer Tertullian will observe that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Indeed.
POINTS TO PONDER
1. Speaking the truth often offends the hardened hart (Acts 7:51-54;Jeremiah 7:25, 26).
2.Focusing on Jesus will help us stand courageously for Him in the face of persecutions and trials (Acts 7:55, 56).
3. Stephen asking God to not charge his death to the account of his enemies provides an example of a Divine act of loving forgiveness (vs. 57-60).
4.Stephen knowingly laid down his life committed to Jesus, and unknowingly laid down his life for future brothers in Christ. (Acts 8:1; 1 John 3:16).
In 1943, John Basilone was one of the most well-known and highly respected men in America. Basilone had dropped out of high school to join the U.S. Army before the outbreak of World War II in Europe. He reenlisted with the Marines in 1940. In October of 1942, he was sent to Guadalcanal with the First Marine Division, which was charged with capturing the island from the Japanese. Basilone became famous for an incident in which his small unit held off an enemy regiment of 3,000; his display of courage earned him the Congressional Medal of Honor, the U.S. military’s highest award for bravery.
Following this victory, the military decided to use Basilone’s heroic reputation on the home front. So he returned to begin a whirlwind national tour as a “poster child” for the sale of war bonds. Over time, however, Basilone became uneasy with his privileged life. He felt convicted that he should return to combat. The Marine Corps eventually granted his request. Basilone ended up at the Battle of Iwo Jima. Exhibiting great courage under fire, he was killed in action on February 19, 1945.
Reflecting on John Basilone’s story, we may wonder if he felt regret as he lay dying, wishing that he had remained in the U.S. to live the life of a cherished war hero. We may have a similar question about Stephen. As the stones began to strike him, did he wish that he had continued to “wait on tables” (Acts 6:2), leaving the preaching to others? It is difficult to imagine that he did. Just as John Basilone was driven by a sense of a higher cause that led him to reject the easy way, Stephen doubtless realized the dangers inherent in preaching Christ, knowing that he was choosing a path of suffering.
Stephen’s suffering was not in vain. His death resulted in the spread of the gospel. Stephen’s sense of a higher cause empowered him to act against self-interest. As a result, he is a model of courage in the face of opposition.
Father, we are thankful for the example of Stephen, who was willing to risk everything to serve you. Grant us the strength to follow his example, even when the outcome seems dangerous or uncertain. Help us to be faithful always to our Lord and Savior Jesus, in whose name we pray; amen.
THOUGHT TO REMEMBER
“The opposite of courage… is not cowardice, it is conformity.”—Rollo May (1909-1994)