Anyone who preaches long enough is going to have some experiences where his words are not appreciated for some reason – fair or not. I have had a couple of those experiences. Years ago in New Jersey I had a Mother’s Day sermon go awry. I forget the point of application, but it was not a warm and fuzzy one like what was expected, and there was an outcry of insensitivity among the women of the church! Maybe I deserved it. I remember another occasion where I had a group of people up front patting me on the back for a passionate and pointed sermon on some other topic I’ve since forgotten, while a different group in the foyer was gathering a posse to get elder authority to run me out of town. It happens, but I have never had one with quite the reaction that Stephen received … “Let’s just kill him now!” His message hit them so heard and with such accusation that their rage was immediate and deadly.
So Stephen becomes the first martyr of the Christian Church, though certainly not the last. We tend to be oblivious in the West that this happens regularly to our brothers and sisters in Christ in other parts of the world. An example currently is in Egypt, involving the persecution and deaths of Christians in that country. It is a horrible thing for sure, yet today’s passage demonstrates the glories of heaven that await those who pass from this life to the next – to real life with Christ.
A literary devise that Luke uses in writing Acts is to give prominent characters (who appear later on in the account) an opportunity for a brief “walk-on” role. And so, he notes that a young fellow named Saul was there and in hearty agreement with all that was happening. As well, the brief mention of Saul’s energetic engagement in going house to house to drag off Christians sets the later stage for why Saul/Paul would not find a warm welcome in Jerusalem … hence his growth and discipleship and evangelism would occur far beyond – in places like Antioch, Corinth, Athens, Ephesus, and even Rome.
The final words of Christ during his ascension announced the great commission of the Gospel to be spread by witnesses from Jerusalem – to Judea, Samaria, and far beyond. A positive outcome of the persecution against all the Christian community on this day was the expansive widening of the message of the Gospel, as the people were forced to scatter in every direction of the ancient world. The picture could be of a boot coming down upon a fire, only to see the sparks fly in every direction and set multiple other fires in surrounding dry timber.
Tertullian – the 2nd Century church father – famously said that “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the church.” This has been a truism throughout all the years since. Millions have given their lives for the faith, and wherever this has happened, the faith has grown, not shrunk. We could look to the Republic of China for the modern era illustration. The house church movement with millions of adherents testifies to the power of the Gospel over what Martin Luther famously penned as “this world with devils filled.”
We have lived in a unique time where our faith has been accepted by the surrounding culture. And though we see the very clear and troubling erosion of this undergirding cultural foundation, we are still freer of persecution and hatred than the average Christian has experienced over the past two millennia. Will it take persecution in our town squares and upon our doorsteps to live as the witnesses we are called to be by our faith in Christ? Or will we be faithful to use even times of peace to be “Matthews” who bring our friends to meet the Savior?
The Stoning of Stephen – Acts 7:54—8:8
54 When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him.55 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. 56 “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
57 At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him,58 dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.
59 While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 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.
8:1 And Saul approved of their killing him.
The Church Persecuted and Scattered
On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. 2 Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. 3 But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison.
Philip in Samaria
4 Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went. 5 Philip went down to a city in Samaria and proclaimed the Messiah there. 6 When the crowds heard Philip and saw the signs he performed, they all paid close attention to what he said. 7 For with shrieks, impure spirits came out of many, and many who were paralyzed or lame were healed. 8 So there was great joy in that city.