Written by: Nico Bougas
Article source: JOY! Magazine
Stephen was no ordinary follower of Jesus. He was the first Christian martyr. His death catapulted the early Christian church from its local Jerusalem roots to a cause that spread across the entire world. Stephen was a man full of God’s grace and power. He did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people. His revolutionary message got him hauled before the Sanhedrin, the same Jewish council that had condemned Jesus to death for blasphemy. When Stephen preached an impassioned defence of Christianity, a mob dragged him outside the city and stoned him.
His great influence
Stephen had a vision of Jesus and said he saw the Son of man standing at the right hand of God and he cried out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit,” and “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” (Acts 7:59-60). But, Stephen’s influence was even stronger after his death. A young man watching the martyrdom was Saul of Tarsus, who would later have an encounter with the living Jesus and be transformed and become the apostle Paul.
The secret of the radiant life
Not all of us can preach, perform miracles, and contend for the faith like Stephen, but all of us can shine for the Lord, as he did. When Stephen witnessed before the Sanhedrin everyone stared at him because his face shone like an angel. Jesus said that we, as believers, are the light of the world. Paul urged us to “live clean, innocent lives as children of God, shining like bright lights in a world full of crooked and perverse people.” – Phil 2:15
How to shine God’s light
When Moses came down from Mount Sinai carrying the two stone tablets with the ten commandments, his face had become radiant because he had spoken to the Lord. Our Lord was transfigured on the holy mount. We have all met Christians whose faces have literally shone with the glory of the Lord. What is their secret? Reading between the lines of 2 Corinthians 3:18 it would appear as if the secret of the radiant life is allowing God’s Holy Spirit to take over our lives. For some it is an instantaneous experience, for others a gradual experience or perhaps both.
Hungry for the word
As Stephen spoke before the religious leaders of that day, he gave a complete survey of Jewish history. As a faithful student of God’s word, he could stand before these men without fear or embarrassment and could confidently explain the word of God to them.
The person who is greatly used of God is always someone who is hungry for the word of God and is thirsty for the Spirit of God. Peter urges us, “Like newborn babies, you must crave pure spiritual milk so that you will grow into a full experience of salvation. Cry out for this nourishment.” – 1 Peter 2:2
Growing in grace
We grow in grace as we increase in the knowledge of God. And we must not merely add head knowledge, but it should work out its way in our lives. Jesus said if we are thirsty for the Spirit of God, we need to come to Him and out of our innermost being there will flow rivers of living water (John 7:37,38).
Persecution is inevitable
Stephen was determined to be faithful to God and to declare all the truth – this resulted in his enemies becoming enraged. For the past 2000 years, thousands of people have been persecuted and martyred for their Christian faith. Sadly, the persecution and genocide of Christians around the world is worse today than at any time in history. The Bible says we are not to be surprised because whenever we invade satan’s territory, there is likely to be a reaction. Stephen knew that serving Jesus and living out life as a believer would not be easy. But he was determined to share the word of God without fear or compromise.
Fearless and faithful
The Jewish leaders were infuriated by the witness and testimony of Stephen. They shook their fists at him in rage. How did Stephen react? He gazed up to Heaven and the glory of God came on him and he told them, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of man standing in the place of honour at God’s right hand.” – Acts 7:56
Stephen was no ordinary follower of Jesus. He was the first Christian martyr.
When Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt– despite the anger of the King – he kept right on going because his eyes were focused on almighty God. When the outlook is bad we need to try the uplook. Paul and Silas were able to pray and sing praises to God even when they were suffering in prison. When we are in difficult situations we need to turn our focus away from the problems and towards the One who is able to deliver us from the lion’s den and from the fiery furnace.
Persecuted and still praying
Stephen was like his Lord; he was meek and lowly and he prayed for those who persecuted him. In his death, like Jesus, Stephen called upon God. He committed his spirit to God and he prayed for his enemies.
Calling out to God
William Tyndale was a heroic Christian reformer who translated the Bible into English. Copies of his translation were strictly forbidden by the king and church leaders. After many years in exile, he was caught and sentenced to death for the “heresy” of translating the word of God into English and distributing it to the people. Before he was executed by strangulation and burnt at the stake, he prayed, “Lord, open the king of England’s eyes.”
Three years later his prayer was answered and every parish in England was required to have a copy of the Bible in English and to make it available to every parishioner. Over the next seventy years, two million copies of the Bible were sold in England.
Persecution and church growth
One of those who watched the stoning of Stephen and listened to his testimony and his dying prayer was Saul of Tarsus. He later became Paul the Apostle, the greatest missionary and theologian of the Christian church. There is little doubt that the whole incident wrought deep conviction in the heart and conscience of this young enemy of the Gospel.
So, the death of Stephen was significantly influential and fruitful in Saul’s conversion. And in addition, the Christians were scattered, and so the Gospel was spread! Years later, Paul wrote and assured believers that everything that had happened to him in the way of trials and persecution had helped to spread the Good News.
The final journey
Stephen cried out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” He was ready to go. For him and all believers it was but a step into the heavenly kingdom. Paul later said that he would rather be away from his earthly body because it would mean being at home with the Lord.
For most people, death comes as an enemy and a fearful intrusion into our lives. But for the believer it is like turning off the light because the dawn has come. Death is like falling asleep. Sleep means rest after toil, and freedom from fear, sorrow, and all the strain of life. In sleep we pass from one day to another, and for the Christian, death is the short passage from earth’s little day of trouble to Heaven’s eternal day of glory!
The death of Stephen was significantly influential in the spreading of the Gospel.
Voltaire, the famous French atheist philosopher, wrote a number of tracts deriding the Bible. He was one of the most aggressive antagonists of Christianity. He wrote many things to undermine the church, and once said of Jesus Christ, “Curse the wretch. In 20 years, Christianity will be no more. My single hand will destroy the edifice it took 12 apostles to rear.”
Needless to say, Voltaire was less than successful. On his deathbed, a nurse who attended him was reported to have said, “For all the wealth in Europe, I would not see another atheist die.” The physician, waiting up with Voltaire at his death, said that he cried out with utter desperation, “I am abandoned by God and man. I will give you half of what I am worth if you will give me six months of life. Then I shall go to hell and you will go with me, oh, Christ, oh, Jesus Christ!”
What a difference faith makes
The last words of Stephen, who was being stoned to death, were, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. … Lord, do not charge them with this sin” – Acts 7:59-60
The great evangelist D. L. Moody, said, “Some day you will read in the papers that D.L. Moody of East Northfield, is dead. Don’t you believe a word of it! At that moment I shall be more alive than I am now; I shall have gone up higher, that is all, out of this old clay tenement into a house that is immortal – a body that death cannot touch, that sin cannot taint; a body fashioned like unto His glorious body.”
On his deathbed he said, “I see Earth receding and heaven is opening. God is calling me. If this is death, it is sweet. There is no valley here. God is calling me, and I must go.”
Feature image: I See the Son of Man Standing on the Right Hand of God, by Walter Rane
Nico Bougas is the International Director of Development of Hellenic Ministries. Email him on Nico@bougas.info, visit hellenicministries.com
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