Stephen: You shall be my martyrs
Acts 7: 48 – 8: 3
Saints under pressure: Jacob, Joseph, Gideon, Shadrach, Meshach & Abednego. Thus far all our saints highlighted have survived the pressure, withstood the testing. None of these characters had it easy, some through their own making, others finding themselves in difficult circumstances. All had a profound encounter with God: whether a stairway to heaven, a wrestling match in the dead of night, dreams dreamt and dreams interpreted, an angelic visitation before calling given, or a companion in the fiery furnace. Stephen in our reading today sticks out as he doesn’t come out of his pressure alive but goes to glory seemingly prematurely. The blood of the martyrs is and has always been the seed of the church. You and I learn little when our faith is a fair weather one: it’s when the storm is at its height that we find Him to be faithful (even as Paul comments to Timothy, when we are faithless: 2 Tim 2:13).
Here is a story that sets the spiritual pulses racing and that is a bit too close for comfort. Martyrdom is not something confined to the New Testament: it is happening as I speak. Christians are being systematically targeted, their homes burnt and many are losing their very lives but more about that in our final message in this series at the end of August. It’s also a little close for comfort because a pressurised church in the UK is tempted to turn in upon itself, create religious ghettos, and stop making Jesus known to a waiting and watching world. Stephen’s journey as a Christian is instructive: through his single life and death, the Holy Spirit was able to push the comfortable Body of Christ out again to the ends of the earth. The church never grows by entrenchment but it does grow when it forgets its own institutional existence and once again offers Christ to the world in all His fullness.
Stephen’s story can be summed up with five R’s: Raised up (as a deacon, then a prophet) against Ruled over (by the Sanhedrin), Reaction (in his heart he knew the Jews had lost the plot and tried to put God in a box) against Religion (the Sanhedrin had put law before grace, and preached a gospel of perfection that no one could aspire to), Revelation (even as a new follower of Jesus, God was showing him all kinds of truths, which he knew he needed to share) against Ritual (Sanhedrin & Pharisees had privatised relationship with God and decided whom was acceptable and who not. You’re not been circumcised!). Radical (Stephen gave them the Bible study of their lives: God is not static but on the move, this was the story of their history) against Restful (the Sanhedrin believed that God was only to be found in the holy of holies in the temple and even then you could not approach Him). The result of Stephen’s preaching was that he, like our other pressurised saints, had a dynamic encounter with God, a vision of God in all His glory, and Jesus sharing it with Him. The consequence was persecution, which led to a scattering of the saints (young and old) and from the actions of the Paul and the Sanhedrin, unintended revival and planting of Christian communities all over the empire, including Antioch, which would become the great missionary hub of the early church. The final R must be your’s and my response to that: but let’s put that to one side for a moment.
The final part of Stephen’s speech to the Sanhedrin summarises his whole thrust: Go is a God on the move, He can’t be tied down and He can’t be confined to the church buildings or enshrined in Christian communities. Stephen’s rebuke to the foremost religious gathering in the known world at that time is hard hitting: He calls them stiff-knecked (and not just becuase they wore strange outfits), with uncircumcised hearts (like saying they weren’t baptised and their hearts were hard towards God). Then to say that they were ‘like their fathers’ always ‘resisting the Holy Spirit’, ‘persecuting God’s prophets’ and now ‘they have betrayed and murdered the Messiah’. The reaction was explosive: religious vested interests always react in that way! But Stephen just keeps his eyes on Jesus and the Holy Spirit gives him a glimpse of God’s glory.
Notice how the religious then cover their ears: there is none so deaf as those who don’t want to hear!! Sometimes the pressure we are experiencing is of our own making because we are deaf to what the Lord is saying to us! Notice also how they yell at the top of their voices, rush at Stephen, and drag him out of the city and begun to stone him. Yet, they had seen a more excellent way in Jesus who stopped a stone by saying: let him who is without sin cast the first stone! Stephen had simply told the truth, such truth rooted in Jesus, which could have set them free, but they chose the religious comfort zone they had created. How many of us also make such a choice and miss out on the amazing blessing of living a Holy Spirit charged dynamic Christian life! One young zealot, Saul, held their coats and witnessed Stephen’s death: the Holy Spirit grit in the oyster of his life beginning to create the eventual pearl of faith in Jesus on the Damascus Road. We can be most sincere but sincerely wrong. Did Stephen handle the situation badly? No, he simply shared what the Lord gave him with conviction and grace. And with that same grace he passed to be with His Lord echoing the words of Jesus not to hold this sin against them. What a life and what a death: would that we could say that of all believers!!
Saul, we are told, approved of Stephen’s death and then was part of the first great persecution of believers, which resulted in all but the apostles leaving Jerusalem and being scattered throughout the empire. A better mission plan one could not have conceived! Stephen was buried and honoured by the early church. Saul tried to destroy the infant church by going house-to-house and throwing men, women and children into prison. The Greek word used for those who were scattered is idiotes, which translates, as you would expect ‘idiots’ and this is where the phrase ‘fools for Christ’ comes from. Echoes of Joseph (Genesis 50:20): You intended this for harm but God used it for good!
There’s another interesting and challenging Greek twist to this chapter in the life of the early church. You will remember in Acts 1:8 Jesus says to his disciples: You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you and you will be my witnesses to Christ but I say to you that the word translated witnesses have been done so very conservatively. The Greek word is Martus, which is more accurately, translated ‘You sall be my martyrs Jesus puts it another way in Matthew 16: if you want to hang on to your life you will lose it, but if you lose your life for my sake, you will find new life. Stephen had heard that and staked his life on it: saint under pressure he may be but actually he had already let go of his life. Such a group of martyrs rather than just witnesses changed the world, turned it upside down in a generation and such a faith is the genuine article the world needs to see afresh in this generation.
Saints under pressue remain faithful to Jesus because they know he holds them and the future in the palm of His hand. Saints under pressure speak the truth in love even to those who were God’s chosen people and should have known better. Saints under pressure keep their eyes firmly on Jesus and leave the outcomes and timing to Him alone.
Saints today are under pressure more than ever before in the history of the church: North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Somalia, Maldives, Yemen, Bhutan, Vietnam, Laos, Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, China, Eritea, Turkmenistan, Comoros, Chechnya, Pakistan, Egypt, Burma, Cuba, Qatar, Djibouti, Srik Lanka – over 30 countries – these are just some of the worst places to live if you are a Christian. There is suffering, persecution, imprisonment, torture and death for may believers. It is estimated that on any one day about 250 people are killed in the world because the profess their faith in Jesus Christ. Whilst I have shared this message, a further 9 people will have faced death for loving Jesus somewhere on Planet Earth.
Faced with those difficulties in this country would the choice we have made to be disciples of Jesus Christ be as easy to make? Would we still be so involved in the life of the church? For many of our Christian brothers and sisters around the world, the cost of making the choice to follow Jesus is so very great. It can be a life or death decision. The Heavenly Man is the title of a book recounting the story of a Brother Yun, a house church leader and preacher who has been used by God to preach the Gospel in China, his suffering has been horrific. It is a challenging book, which must be read to fully understand the degree of Christian persecution that is being carried out in this part of the world and I commend it to you.
Saints under pressure know the God of Stephen: He is a pilgrim God not restricted to one holy place. God’s presence can never be contained or localised: no building however grand can confine Him or inhibit His activity. Saints under pressure confess Christ before men and know that at the appointed time that they will see Christ confessing them before the Father. Change is painful to us all, especially when it affects out cherised buildings and customs, and we should not seek change merely for the sake of change. Yet true Christian discipleship is always on the move and open to change. It knows that God has bound Himself to His body, the church (promising that he will never leave it) and to His word (promoising that it will never pass away). But the Body of Christ is people not buildings and God’s word means scripture not traditions. Stephen and Saints have understood that as long as these essentials are preserved, the buildings and the traditions can, if necessary, go. We must never allow them to imprison the living God or impede His mission to the world.
Oh and yes back to the need for the final R the response. Saints under pressure choose to be the martyrs: for the believer there is no better place to be.
August 7th 2011