Acts 6:8-15; 7:54-8:3 - Stirring, Seizing, Stoning, Scattering (Rev. Erik Veerman)
One of the early church fathers, Tertullian, famously wrote “The Blood of the Martyrs is the Seed of the Church.”
A Christian martyr is someone who is killed because of their faith in Christ. Tertullian was saying that the church grows not despite the fact that Christians are martyred. No, rather God uses their blood to further his church.
It’s counter intuitive to think about, but it has been so true throughout the ages.
• Today, the persecution and murder of Christians in North Korea, in China, in Africa, in the Middle East - God is using to fulfill his purposes in the church.
• The martyr of Christians all throughout the Soviet Union just over 100 years ago, God used to further his church
• The blood of martyrs during the time of the pre-reformation and reformation… all over Europe and north Africa, God accomplished his purposes in a great awakening of his church
• The first 3 centuries of the church witnessed great persecution and martyrdom – all throughout the Roman Empire and Mediterranean. And God used it to solidify, unite and expand his church.
• Many of the apostles themselves were killed for their faith, testifying to Christ. People witness their great testimony of faith… and their blood strengthened and laid the foundation to the church.
And it goes all the way back to here. To Acts 6 and 7. To Stephen. His name in the Greek means crown. Stephen is the first Martyr of the Christian Church. the first one to wear the martyr’s crown in the presence of His savior in heaven.
And through this horrible sin-filled sequence of events, culminating in Stephen’s death. God was at work in several ways. We’ll see a couple of them later in our passage.
It all began with one of the seven. Last week, we studied the appointment of Stephen and 6 others to serve. They were all full of wisdom and the Spirit. Here in chapter 6 verse 8, it affirms Stephen as “full of grace and power” God’s grace, and God’s power. It’s been on display for everyone to see and experience. Over the weeks and months following his appointment. Stephen grew in wisdom and in the Spirit… and just like the apostles, he became well known for how the Lord was using him.
But many of the Jews were not happy about it.
It’s now been several months since Jesus’ ascension to heaven, likely even a couple years. The believers in Christ are no longer this small little sect of Judaism. No, they had grown considerably in Jerusalem and the surrounding Judean area. I read one estimate… that at this time, there were as many as 20-30,000 believers.
Because of God’s work through Stephen… not only did the Jewish rulers in Jerusalem hate him, but many of the Greek speaking Jewish people also opposed him. We see that in verse 9. The list of communities there are all Hellenist Jews – Greek speaking Jews from different regions and backgrounds… but they were still very religious.
Of course they were opposed to Stephen. Through his witness and the witness of countless others, many of their own people were believing in Jesus as the promised one, the Messiah. Believing that their Scriptures were fulfilled in Christ. Not only that, but if you remember from last week’s text, many of the priests believed. These Jesus followers were undermining everything the Jews stood for.
We’re only 6 to 7 chapters into Acts… and we’ve already seen an escalating opposition to the church. From warnings, to imprisonments, to trials, to even one instance where the apostles were beaten – that’s in chapter 5 verse 40.
For the Jewish people, it was time to put an end to these Jesus followers.
Here’s the progression of their opposition…
• They stirred up dissent,
• they then seized Stephen,
• next, they brought him to the High Priest. That’s the beginning of chapter 7…. where Stephen preached, defending his beliefs. Which only stirred the pot more.
• Then mob rules kicked in. And Stephen is then dragged out of the city and stoned to death.
• That’s when the believers are scattered.
You can see that progression in the outline. Stirring, Seizing, Stoning, and Scattering
Stirring and Seizing (Acts 6:8-15)
They could not withstand Stephen’s wisdom and the Spirit he had. Verse 10.
We get no sense here that these people even considered that maybe Stephen was right.
When we think about sharing our faith… often we say to ourselves… if I’m just thoughtful enough, people will believe. If I say things in the right way, make the best argument, surely they will believe. Right? Do you think that or have you thought that?
Well, no. That’s not how it works. It takes a change of heart. Yes, we should be sensitive and caring, but we can’t tiptoe around matters of sin and belief. Conviction of sin and repentance is part of believing. Being bold is part of evangelism. Stephen boldly declared the truth. Many were coming to faith… but not these people. Everything Stephen was saying threatened them… their beliefs and their control.
They completely rejected Stephen – really, they were rejecting God and His word.
So what did they do. They “secretly instigated men” verse 11… spreading rumors and stirring up dissent… verse 12. The set up false witnesses… verse 13. They weren’t interested in the truth. They weren’t interested in a lawful process. No, they wanted to build momentum and consensus in whatever way they could. Lying and denying and instigating.
The irony is they broke the 9th commandment, “thou shall not bear false witness” but accused Stephen as the one violating the law.
They were stirring the pot, bringing things to a boil. It was all dishonest and disingenuous. They wanted their way, and didn’t care how they accomplished it.
What a contrast to what we studied last week! The care and unity displayed in the church compared to the hate and dishonesty in these verses.
In fact, there’s a lot of contrasts going on here.
Look at Stephen!
• He was full of grace - they were full of hate.
• He was caring for the people – they were stirring up the people.
• He was heralding God’s Word. They were rejecting God’s Word.
• Even his countenance was peaceful, verse 15, while they were visibly angry. Chapter 7:54 …griding their teeth, they are so enraged.
• Stephen sought the peace and unity of the church… while this man named Saul wanted to tear apart the church.
Stephen is a model of Christ for us. All throughout he reflected Christ’s life. One commentator I read noted 10 parallels in chapter 6 and 7 between Stephen and Jesus. Just in these first verses in chapter 6…
• both were charged with blasphemy,
• both suffer the testimony of false witnesses.
• Both were full of grace and power,
• both displayed signs and wonders.
• Both were filled with the Holy Spirit.
When you are confronted about what you believe... how do you respond? We all have a temptation to dig in our heels… Or raise our voices... Or try to control the conversation…. Or punch back with retorts… or dismiss or be defensive. In those situations, we can still be bold, but do so full of grace and joy.
For the teenagers here. Some of you already know this. The first few times that your faith is questioned… it’s really easy to be defensive. After all, someone is questioning something you believe in. Rather than being defensive… Be gentle and joyful like Stephen. It reflects Christ. I learned this the hard way. One time, many years ago, I was having lunch with a couple friend who were not believer in Christ. I brought up faith, and I remember the conversation getting intense. It wasn’t heated, but one of my friends said something like, “I can tell you’re really passionate about your faith, but you’re being kind of pushy… and it pushes me away” A wake up call for me. 1 Peter 3 is a well known passage about standing up for our faith.... But listen to this. “always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect,”
Look at Stephen’s witness in the midst of the false charges and slander. Verse 15. “and gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel.” He believed in the promises of Christ. He wasn’t naive… no, he knew what’s likely to happen. But he was joyful in Christ. Stephen was resting in his security in Christ. The Holy Spirit was powerfully at work in him all the way to his death.
The joy and the peace that he had is what we need.
Stoning and Scattering (Acts 7:54-8:3)
Now, fast forward to the end of chapter 7. Stephen had just preached an amazing sermon. He testified to three things: first, that God’s promises to Abraham are fulfilled in Christ, second, how Christ fulfilled the law of Moses, and third, how even the temple itself was fulfilled in Christ. We’ll get to those next week.
And we want these people to believe. Stephen wanted them to know Christ. But as he continued to expound the Scriptures… there was no believing. He could visibly see it. In their hard hearts, they rejected God and his church. And Stephen called them out.
We didn’t read verse 51, but he called out their persecution, and how their fathers also rejected the prophets – then he landed the punch. They rejected the Righteous One, Jesus, whom they betrayed and murdered. In other words, they were complicit, just as their forefathers were, in rejecting the law and God, and the Promised One.
This enraged them.
Kind of like road rage times 100. Verse 54, they were so angry, the ground their teeth at him. Their jaws were clenched… they were holding themselves back. When we get really angry, we often have a physiological reaction… our ears turn red, we shake, our fists clench, our eyes turn to daggers.
What did them in was Stephen’s vision. He described that he saw, “Jesus, the Son of Man, standing at the right hand of God, the Father.” That was it! Utter blasphemy. Stephen claimed that Jesus was in heaven with God as God.
They snapped. They rushed at him, yelling while holding their ears… because they didn’t want to hear any more. Verse 57.
Mob rule took over. There was no more process. They wouldn’t hand Stephen over to the Romans. No, his execution was in the hands of the people. They grabbed him, dragged him out of the city. And then began the torturous persecution of stoning. This involved such physical exertion, that they took off their outer garments. They laid them at the feet of one of their own, Saul… verse 58… and then began hurling stones at Stephen.
Stoning didn’t usually result in an immediate death. It was often slow and painful. It would take multiple hits to his head. But even while he was being stoned, the Lord gave Steohen mercy. He was able to pray to God… he even asked God to have mercy on them.
All through the persecution, Stephen submitted willingly. Supernaturally sustained by the Holy Spirit. Just like Stephen’s life reflected Christ, so his death reflected his Savior’s. We read Luke’s account of the crucifixion earlier in the service.
• Just as Stephen was cast out of the city, verse 58, so was Jesus, dragged outside the city walls to be crucified
• Just as Stephen called out to His Lord to “receive his Spirit”, verse 59, so Jesus called out to the Father committing his spirit.
• As Stephen prayed, verse 60, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” So Christ on the cross, prayed “Father, forgive them”
You see, with the Holy Spirit in him, Stephen endured his torture and death just as his Savior… even to the point of praying for his persecutors.
I think what also gave him strength was knowing who was waiting for him in heaven. Go back again just a few verses, verse 55 and 56. Twice it speaks of Jesus standing at the right hand of the Father. First describing what Stephen saw and second as Stephen conveyed what he saw to this tribunal.
Did you notice, Christ was standing, not sitting. This is the only place in Scripture where Jesus is standing, not sitting, next to the Father in heaven. That’s out of about 15 references to Jesus at God’s right hand. And Stephen saw Christ. Saw his Lord, moments before the mob would rush him. And Jesus was standing…
• perhaps in honor of this first Martyr of the church
• perhaps to indicate to Stephen that he was waiting for him in heaven. Waiting to give him the crown of life. Knowing that his faithful servant, Stephen, is only moments away from entering his presence in heaven.
• Perhaps Jesus is standing as judge over the persecutors… that’s conveyed in the title Son of Man, a reference to Daniel chapter 7, describing the mighty Son of Man with all power and all authority to rule and reign and judge.
• Perhaps Jesus stood for all those above.
But through this vision, and through His Spirit, Jesus gave Stephen His peace and grace to endure this death, just as He himself endured the cross.
What an amazing testimony… it points us to the cross, to our savior, to his forgiveness… to even our own complicity in His death, but God’s grace.
And in chapter 8 verse 2, “great lamentations were made.” Of course. Stephen had risen to a place of prominence. He was a faithful servant, known by many, with all his wisdom, being filled by the Spirit. He modelled for them in his life and in his death, what it means to serve his Savior, to be fully committed to His Lord, to boldly declare the hope of Christ, and to die as our Savior died… Stephen’s testimony strengthened them in their faith and through their trials.
This first martyrdom was a spark of violence that burst into a raging flame. Chapter 8 verse 1 says “A great persecution arose against the church in Jerusalem.” The tension had built and the flood gates opened. And this man named Saul became the chief instigator. It says he was “ravaging the church.” verse 3… he was going door to door, with his thugs, dragging men and women off to prison for believing in Christ. Torturing the church. And the Christians scattered.
In your mind, I want you to imagine being part of the early church in Jerusalem. Everything seemed to be going well. Yes, there was some opposition, but they had been fellowshipping together, worshipping together, caring for one another, the church community was growing like wild-fire. And then… this. The fiery furnace of persecution. Imagine what they must have felt. Perhaps that it was all over. Maybe they felt that God had left them. And they all fled Jerusalem.
In 1555, there was only 1 known protestant church in all of France. But God had given a vision to a great French man, who lived just over the border of France… in Geneva Switzerland. This man so desired to see the Gospel penetrate his homeland that he trained up thousands of Christian missionaries. Many came from France to Geneva to learn the Scriptures, so that they could bring the Gospel home and plant churches and see many come to faith. This man had one of the greatest missionary hearts… and his school was perhaps the greatest missionary school in all of church history. Who was he? His name was John Calvin.
France went from 1 church in 1555 to an estimated 2000 churches in less than years. 10% of the population in France were believers in Christ. Hundreds of thousands believed in Christ. They were known as the Huguenots.
What happened? A great persecution arose in France. Many Christians were thrown in prison.
Calvin was very burdened by this. He wrote many letters to these believers in prison.
In one of them he wrote: “at this present hour; necessity itself exhorts you more than ever to turn your whole mind toward heaven. …it appears as though God would use your blood to seal His truth.” Calvin went on in his letter, encouraging them to prepare themselves, to seek the Lord’s help, to subdue their hearts and minds for what would likely come to pass. He closed by writing this, “Since it pleases God to use your death in maintaining His [Gospel] battle, He will strengthen your hands in the fight and will not suffer a single drop of your blood to be shed in vain.”
In 1572, about 70,000 believers in Christ were martyred in France. But over the ensuing years 500,000 Christians fled France and scattered all throughout Europe, Africa, and the new world. They brought the Gospel to places that had yet to hear the hope of Christ.
“The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”
Do you see God’s purposes in allowing Stephen’s martyrdom? The second half of chapter 8, verse 1, “they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.” The apostles remained in Jerusalem… there was more work to be done, but the church was scattered. Where? All throughout Judea and Samaria. God used Stephen’s death and the great persecution that followed to accomplish the next step in Jesus’ commission in Acts 1:8. You shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and then Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.
The reverberations continue today… from Stephen’s martyrdom, and the apostles soon thereafter, and the believers killed in the Roman empire, and so many of the reformers, and the French Huguenots, and the many others… We are here today in part because of their sacrifice for the Gospel.
But something else was also going on.
The Lord heard Stephen’s final prayer. “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” He was praying for the very ones who were stoning him and present there and approving of his execution.
This man, Saul, who was growing in dominance and power, who was the one leading this great persecution, God had great plans for him. The believers didn’t know it, yet… but through Stephen’s prayer God would answer in the most unlikely way… He would transformation Saul’s life. God would pour out his great grace, and His Spirit upon this man. He would become the apostle Paul, the great missionary, the greatest apostle, the human author of 13 books of the Bible.
Beloved, we do not know what God has in store for each of us, for our church, for the church throughout the world. But even through the tragedies, the grief, the persecution, and even the martyrdom… God is at work.