Acts: Chapter 7
Martyrdom: In Acts 7 we approach the first martyrdom of the church. Luke is not only recording that the church was persecuted, but trying to teach a pivotal truth of the Gospel: Jesus conquering death means that even our body is something worth sacrificing because Christ’s kingdom is eternal. And if the kingdom of Christ is eternal, then nothing in this life, even physical death, is worth rejecting Jesus over. This is really important. Luke is trying to show the power of the Gospel in practice. Jesus overcame sin, death, and the devil, and you have that same power in you because you have the Holy Spirit. The power of Jesus is real and tangible in this life, so much so, Stephen was willing to die! St. Augustine wrote, “How could the martyrs ever conquer, unless Jesus said to them, “Rejoice, since I have conquered the world?” Jesus Christ, emperor of the heavens, was governing their minds and tongues, and through them overcoming the devil on earth. For not even death has power over man, when they are willing to sacrifice their life. O, how blessed are those who drank this cup! They have finished with suffering and have received honor eternal honor!” What a beautiful picture of what martyrdom is! Martyrdom is a great statement to the world and to Satan that sin and death have no power over you, that Jesus is your greatest possession! Dying for the Gospel is only possible because we have Jesus ruling over our minds and our hearts. And, Jesus whispers to those being martyred, “fear not, for I have overcome the world!” If Jesus can help a martyr overcome the fear of death, how much more can he help you overcome the fear of rejection, the fear of being disliked? How much more can Christ help you overcome temptation? How much more can Jesus help you overcome your lust, your envy, your anger, your laziness, your love of money? Stephen not only withstood the stones being thrown at him, he withstood the temptation to hate his persecutors as he cried out with his last breath, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Martyrdom teaches us that Jesus is always present and is always a help. Nothing can overcome our Savior for he has overcome the world. He has overcome death, and he is present with you, through his Spirit, to help you overcome all evil in your life!
The Israelite Nation in Stephen’s Sermon: John Chrysostom noted that Stephen shows that the Israelites are always one step behind God in their worship. They also focus on the form that God told them to worship in but forget about the God they are to worship. This leads to the Israelites being unable to recognize Jesus as their very own God on earth in human form. Chrysostom writes, “You, Israel, always resist the Holy Spirit. As your Fathers did, so do you. When it was God’s will that there no longer be sacrifices, you sacrificed still; and when it was God’s will that you sacrifice, you did not sacrifice. When he did not give you commandments, you dragged them toward you and made your own; then when you received the ten commandments, you neglected them. Again, when the temple stood, you worshipped idols; and when it became God’s will to be worshipped without a temple, you do the exact opposite.” This shows that Stephen in his sermon was going through the history of Israel to show that the nation almost always did the opposite of what God commanded, because they cared more about the form of worship than the actual object of their worship.
The Murder of Stephen: “After language like this (“Grinding their teeth in anger”), acquittal for Stephen was out of the question. But as Stephen was being condemned to death, he appealed to a higher court. Jesus had said that the Son of Man would acknowledge before the angels of God any one who confessed him before men (Luke 12: 8). Now Stephen saw that promise being fulfilled. If it be asked why he saw the Son of Man standing and not sitting (as in Luke 22: 69), the answer may be that, while to be seated is the appropriate posture for a priest-king, to stand is appropriate for an advocate or witness for the defence. It is in the latter role that Stephen saw the exalted Lord. The haste with which the execution was carried out may give the appearance of lynch law, but it seems to have conformed with traditional Jewish and Roman requirements. The Roman administration would have given the Sanhedrin the right to carry out the death sentence for an offence against the Temple. The penalty for blasphemy was death by stoning, and the regulation ran: “The hand of the witnesses shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people” (Deuteronomy 17: 7). The witnesses (the Sanhedrin), then, had to cast the first stones (compare John 8: 7). That is why they laid aside their outer garments. So, Saul as a religious student manifested his solidarity and complicity with them by guarding their clothes as they threw the stones.”
Voice of the Past:
Martyrdom built the church’s foundation: "The more frequently we are mown down by you (the Romans), the more in number we grow; the blood of Christians is like fertile seed. Many of your famous thinkers, like Cicero and Seneca, exhort men to courageously bear pain and their death; and yet their words do not find so many disciples as Jesus Christ does, for he is a teacher not just by words, but by his deeds...For whoever contemplates Christianity, is excited to inquire what is at the bottom of it? Who, after researching our faith, does not embrace our doctrines? and when he has embraced them, desires not to suffer that he may become partaker of the fullness of God’s grace, that he may obtain from God complete forgiveness, and be willing to exchange even his own life, his own blood, in loyalty to Jesus? Because of our faith, we count it a blessing to die for our Savior, and we thank you our oppressors. Human governments and God are often opposed to each other, when we are condemned by you (our government) for our faith, we are acquitted by the Highest (Jesus Christ)."
Praying for the Persecuted Church: In the above quote, Tertullian (an early church pastor) is writing to a Roman official defending the Christian faith. Tertullian was most likely the son of a Roman centurion when he became a convert to Christianity. Tertullian was a trained Roman lawyer, and used his gifts to defend the church to the Roman proctors, and the Emperor Severus. One of Tertullian’s most famous arguments in this Apology, is for the Romans to stop killing Christians because they grew faster and stronger through the frequent killings of Christians. Think how amazing that is! Look how awesome it is that our Christian great, great, great, great, grandparents loved Jesus so much to die for him. And we are now inheritants of this same faith! Our brothers and sisters who are in chains and martyred in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East need our daily prayer. As Hebrews 13 states, “Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body.”
St. Augustine of Hippo. Sermon 329. 1-2: PL 38, 1454-1455.
Acts 7:60. ESV.
John Chrysostom. Homilies on the Acts of the Apostles. Homily 17.
Bruce, F.F. Commentary on the Book of Acts. Acts 7
Tertullian. Apology. Chapter 50.