God was doing a great work in the original church in Jerusalem. The apostles were preaching the gospel and teaching the new converts and the church was multiplying. The members were caring for each other and sharing the love of Jesus. When God desires to do a great work like that, there are two things you can count on: He will find a willing servant through whom He can do that work, and Satan will try to stop that person.
In Stephen, God found a willing servant. Stephen was full of faith, full of wisdom, and full of the Holy Spirit. He went beyond his ministry assignment of feeding the widows and took to the streets, performing signs and wonders that led people to faith in Jesus (6:8). This so upset the Jesus-haters that they “stirred up the people” (6:12). I have found that whenever God begins to move and lives are being changed, Satan always has his little band of fools to stir up some trouble to take the focus off of Jesus. Stephen was arrested, falsely accused, and brought before the same council that had condemned Jesus and had beaten the apostles.
When Stephen was given the chance to speak, he took advantage of it. His sermon in chapter 7 is the longest recorded speech in the book of Acts, and it is a brilliant one-chapter commentary on the Old Testament.
Stephen’s indictment against the Jews was very direct: just as their ancestors had rejected Moses, they had rejected the One Moses prophesied — Jesus. The great tragedy was that the Jews had resisted God’s plan, rebelled against God’s commands, and rejected God’s man even after He had blessed them with so many blessings. After all the ways God expressed His love for His children, what a tragedy that “in their hearts they turned to Egypt” (v.39). Remember, Egypt was the place where they were slaves! Egypt was the place where they had been exploited, oppressed, and beaten…and yet in their hearts they turned back to that place. Rather than serve the God who had loved them and delivered them, they turned back to Egypt. Oh, how that must have broken the heart of God. (And how it must break His heart when we who have been saved from sin turn back to the sin from which He saved us.)
The heart of Stephen’s message, and the statement that precipitated his death, is found in verses 51-53. When you read those verses, don’t read anger into them, read heartbreak into them. Stephen was brokenhearted that these people had been so stubborn in their resistance and rejection of the Lord. He said in verse 51, “You always resist the Holy Spirit.”
Stephen told the truth about his fellow Jews: in the history of the chosen people of God, they had a record of violent resistance to the message of the prophets who would come and call them back to the Lord. They eventually killed their own Messiah, the Lord Jesus! Stephen said, “You are stubborn, you are stiff-necked, and you are resisting the Holy Spirit.”
As Stephen finished his message, the things he said so enraged the council that they began to “grind their teeth at him” (v.54). Just imagine these dignified religious leaders snarling and bearing their teeth at Stephen like wild animals! What did Stephen do? He focused his mind and his eyes on Jesus! He didn’t focus on the violation of his rights, or his pain, or his enemies. He focused on Jesus.
Stephen saw a vision of Jesus standing in heaven. That’s interesting because the Bible says that when Jesus ascended into heaven, He sat down at the Father’s right hand. But Stephen saw Him standing. I have an idea why Jesus stood: Jesus said, “Everyone who acknowledges Me before men, the Son of Man also will acknowledge before the angels of God” (Luke 12:8). In a Jewish court, the proper posture for a witness was standing up. I think Jesus stood to give the ultimate acknowledgement for the first Christian martyr.
They took Stephen outside the city and began to hurl stones at him. I can see Stephen, rocks pelting his body, blood pouring from his wounds, and his eyes fixed on heaven. And he kneels down and looks past the mob to a hill in the distance, a hill that has the shape of a skull, Golgotha. That’s where the apostles said Jesus died on a cross for our sins. Stephen’s dying prayer echoed the prayers of the crucified Jesus: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit…do not hold this sin against them.” And with that, “he fell asleep” (v.60), only to wake up in the arms of Jesus.
God doesn’t call all of us to be martyrs, but He does call us to be living sacrifices. If you are living for Jesus, you will be prepared to die for Him.