But [Stephen], full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep. (Acts 7:55-60 ESV)
In the wonderful 1986 Gene Hackman movie, Hoosiers, an unorthodox high school coach upsets small town basketball pride and riles up local leaders when he tries to make a winning team out of eight undisciplined boys. At the first practice one of the local men tries to show the coach “how things are done here,” and is quickly rebuffed and asked to leave the gym. Publically embarrassed in front of the team, the man turns to the coach and says, “Mister, there's two kinds of crazy: someone who gets naked, runs out into the forest and barks at the moon, and someone who does the same thing in my living room. The first one I don't care about, the second I'm kind of forced to deal with."
We’ve been listening these past few weeks to the Voices of the Resurrection. We started with Thomas, the Voice of Lingering Doubt. Then came Luke, the Voice of Proclamation. Last week we heard from the 3000 united voices that all came to Christ on the day of Pentecost. And what a great experience it was that the Lord set up for us a pulpit exchange last Sunday where Randy Thompson and his wife Jill came from Connecticut to share in worship with you all and Jama and I had the opportunity to go and share in worship with their congregation. The more we understand that there are not many churches but one, the better off all of us will be.
Today we want to listen to what is perhaps the most well documented and yet least often heard voice of the New Testament era, after Jesus own voice. The narrative concerning Stephen begins at Acts 6:1 and is a sermon some 1750 words long, more than twice the length of Peter’s message on Pentecost. It takes up two complete chapters. With the exception of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, which may well be more of a compilation of sermonic bits of Jesus’ teaching, rather than an actual sermon, and was certainly recorded long after Jesus’ death, Stephen’s sermon is a complete sermon ostensibly recorded verbatim as it was preached: the longest single preached message we have in the New Testament.
As we are about to discover, Stephen left behind himself what I want to call The Little Way of Christ, because of its similarities to Jesus’ own martyrdom. He also left behind a pattern for true Christian martyrdom because, after Christ, he is the first person martyred in the church age whose name we know of.
Other than his name and the names of the six other original deacons of the church who were Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolaus, we really don’t know much about Stephen. He was Jewish by descent, but his name is Greek, and at least one of the other deacons who was chosen with him was from Antioch in Syria, the same place where Luke, the gospel writer and author of Acts came from. So there is the high probability his family came from Galilee of the Gentiles or even further north, into Syria.
The seven men were chosen to take care of the needs of a specific group of widows of Hellenistic, that is Greek origin living in Jerusalem. The story of these men helps us understand a little of the pressure that was on these early entrepreneurial believers. The church was spreading like wild fire in and around Jerusalem, and they had no clear pattern of who should be doing what sort of service.
The Making of a Martyr
Quickly, let’s back up to Luke 6:1. If you have your Bible turn there and let’s have a look at what got Stephen in so much trouble.
The first characteristic of a martyr of the church is that they aspire to nothing. They don’t jockey for position, or look to get their name known. They don’t generally go to seminary in order to take an important or well-connected pulpit somewhere. Contrary to what you might think, they are not generally noted for their preaching ability. What the martyrs of the church have tended to do is tackle spiritual and social issues, calling either the church or the world or both to account for their pattern of sin, especially with regard to the poor, the needy, and those who have no voice to speak for themselves. The people who become genuine martyrs, and not self-made martyrs, are people we would not recognize as ambitious. They, like Stephen, have simply become obedient to the Holy Spirit and in gentle, guileless honesty of heart, go out and offer themselves in service to others.
The office of Deacon isn’t something you can aspire to, though in many churches in our day, you would think otherwise. Acts 6:2 says that the council of the Apostles – at that time there were again twelve – approached the rest of those who had been acknowledged by the church as disciples (a number probably in excess of the 120 mentioned in the gospels) and brought the problem to them.
Note the structure of leadership in the early church. The council of the Apostles was the central guiding force in these first days after the Ascension. And beyond them those who were recognized as disciples -- men and women who had walked with Jesus while he was alive – were working in concert with the Twelve when important decisions had to be made. If these people were living in 2011, this would probably be equivalent to the Elders of a contemporary church approaching all of the small group leaders in order to get a read on how to proceed. You will notice that no vote was taken. I think it was abundantly clear which men they wanted as their first deacons. They were chosen by general ascent, and then prayed over by the full number of the disciples. It must have been a very moving, very humbling experience. So the first mark of a martyr of the church is that they aspire to nothing, but are chosen by everyone.
The second characteristic of true martyrdom is that martyrs are always trained by God and set aside as cups of wine that will be poured out in service to Christ. Let God train you now to be a person filled with the Holy Spirit and with faith. Again, this takes a heart of quiet humility, rather than an angry fire in the belly to achieve something. I have no doubt, judging from the text, that it never occurred to Stephen that he would be chosen for the work with the widows.
Third, martyrs always take on the task God has given them gratefully and joyfully in the Body, no matter what it is. Generally, martyrs have served in nearly anonymous positions until the moment God calls upon the resource he has given them in the Holy Spirit and the impulse to step forward takes over.
Stephen could have groused about the assignment he was given. After all, caring for widows isn’t exactly the most manly job on earth. They weren’t sending him out to preach, or to teach, or to heal, or to stand against Rome. They gave him a really simple job: take good care of the little old ladies no one else wanted to take care of. He didn’t get to be head trustee, or assistantant to the pastor. He didn’t even get to be on the Elder Board.
Gentlemen, start your engines! I’ve got a tough job for you. If you really want to serve God, we’d like you to go around town – for the duration of your ministry – and take food and flowers to widows and sit with them, pray with them, eat with them, love them, and share Christ with them. Do you remember what a private says to his commanding officer in basic training when they ask him to clean the toilet with a toothbrush? He snaps to attention with a smile on his face and says, “Just happy to be here, sir.”
I have a friend named Chris back in Connecticut. When Chris came to Christ in 1993 he was nearing the end of his high school years and was deeply involved in the drama program there. Our musical drama ministry attracted him, and he received Christ very unglamorously one day in the front seat of the 15-passenger van I was driving. The next year we wrote a play whose main character was a janitor who works quietly behind the scenes and ultimately adopts a homeless teen. The character, whose name was Joe, also appeared in a sequel we wrote the next year.
And so began God’s work training Chris. Chris not only played the character of Joe on and off over the next 12 years, he also learned what service means. More often than not, when a church toilet clogged, Chris was the one of our staff who would go and clean up the mess. You would most often find him in the kitchen or working on our technical crew. When he wasn’t on stage playing Joe he was being Joe behind the scenes helping others succeed. And all the while he was testifying to the power of Christ in his life. Chris had and has the four primary qualities of a deacon of the church: Aspire to nothing. Let God train you. Take on the task. And when someone in the church complains about you or accuses you of doing it wrong (as they invariably will), be a person of peace. That is also something deeply woven into the fabric of who Chris is.
Stephen was being a witness for Christ in a way that was galling to the leaders of the synagogues in Jerusalem that accepted what were called proselytes. These were culturally based synagogues that catered to people coming into Judaism from the outside. As the early church began to be woven into the fabric of these synagogues, the leaders were deeply jealous of anyone who belonged to the Way who didn’t first submit to their teaching. These guys, just like the party of the Pharisees before them, were terribly threatened because they worried that they might lose their position and the general control they had over their people’s faith. Stephen had no interest in arguing with them or even talking about what he was up to. He just wanted to serve, and he was doing it in such a way that he was getting noticed all over town. When they came and accused him falsely, Stephen, like Jesus, sat before his accusers without uttering a word. That’s why it says that everyone could see he had the face of an angel. Violent people cannot stand a non-violent response. They simply don’t know what to do with it, and it causes them to become more and more enraged. A person of peace threatens their whole being right to the core.
Finally the whole thing got so bad that the high priest intervened. I think he was trying to prevent a repeat of what had happened just months before when Jesus stood unflappable before the Sanhedrin and said nothing in his own defense. The High Priest asked if the accusations against Stephen were true.
What follows is one of the least polished sermons you ever heard. The first 50 verses of Acts 7 are nothing more than a re-telling of the Exodus account. I have been to seminary, and I can tell you that his sermon would never have gotten Stephen through preaching 101. Stephen is answering the High Priest’s question in detail. Are the accusations true? Does Stephen actually deny the authority of Moses? Does he speak against the Temple?
Stephen never studied or prepared to deliver this sermon. He is speaking, as we might say today, off the cuff. But Stephen had aspired to nothing (and learned the way of Christ), he had let God train him (and learned the way of Christ), he had taken on the task (and learned the way of Christ), and now he was being a man of peace (DOING the way of Christ). And this man from somewhere up north knew the history of Israel better than the priests did, not because he had gone to seminary but because he had learned the way of Christ and now God was using him – a man who had never preached before – to powerfully rebuke the leaders of the synagogue for not grasping the full meaning of the Scriptures, just as Jesus had done. That’s why I call Stephen’s martyrdom the Little Way of Christ.
All the rest of what Stephen did you and I can do any day we want. We can aspire to nothing, let God train us, take on the task, and be people of peace and, as Paul says, we will be walking as children of light in the church and before the world. Actually, none of those things by themselves will get you martyred. Those are all background, and are necessary if you want to walk the Little Way of Christ yourself. But do all of those things and then publically call the leaders of your church “stiff-necked people, children of those who murdered the prophets,” and tell them they are responsible for the murder of Christ, and as the coach in Hoosiers found out, they will be “forced to deal with you.”
Aspire to nothing. Let God train you. Take on the task. Be a person of peace, and then humbly and yet forcefully tell people a painful truth. THAT is a sure-fire way to become a martyr of the church.
I suspect that it didn’t help Stephen’s case that at that moment he had what is called a theophany – a vision of heaven. And in that moment of vision, the Holy Spirit did what he always does in people he has firmly in his grip: he testified to the Father and the Son.
That was the final straw. That was the nail in the coffin. They rushed him and carried him out of the city and stoned him to death. Stephen wasn’t trying to become a martyr. I don’t believe he wanted to die for the cause. He simply wasn’t politically smart; he was a man without the power of deceit. The genuineness of his heart toward God gave him no alternative but to speak the truth and testify to the Father and the Son. And as he was stoned to death he did exactly what his Lord had done when he was crucified: He commended his own soul to God, fully assured that his relationship with God would last into eternity, and he asked God to forgive the act of violence done against him. It is from the Voice of the Martyr that we learn the Little Way of Christ. It is from the Voice of the Martyr that we learn the way of non-violence in the face of violent abuse, torture, and even death. It is from the Voice of the Martyr that we learn the way of forgiveness.
There is an epilogue to Stephen’s story that we need to know. If you read Acts 8, verse 1, you’ll find these sad words, “And Saul approved of his execution.” I can’t verify this, but it seems to me that Luke probably wasn’t present for the stoning of Stephen. When the leaders of the synagogue grabbed Stephen and cast him out of the city, in all likelihood the twelve Apostles and the rest of the disciples would have been excluded from the lynching. But there is one voice of the Resurrection who we know was present for Stephen’s execution. He was a young man at the time, and we now know of him as the Apostle Paul. He was there.
That was in late 33 AD. And I think that one night about twenty years later, after Christ had met him on the Damascus Road, after he had come to Christ, after he had spent 14 years in seclusion, after he had been accepted as an Apostle by the council of the Twelve in Jerusalem, after they had commissioned him and sent him out to bring the gospel to the gentile world; I think that one night about twenty years later, Paul was sitting at a campfire someplace up in Asia minor and tearfully told a story to his friend and traveling companion, Luke, of how he had stood by and acted as official witness as they stoned to death the man with the face of an angel and the Voice of a Martyr.
The Voice of a Martyr speaks the Way of Christ from beyond the grave. Directly or indirectly Paul learned what it means to walk with Christ from this man, probably more than from all his other teachers combined. From Stephen, Paul learned, and you and I can learn, to Aspire to nothing. Let God train you. Take on the task. Be a person of peace, tell people a painful truth they need to know, and let the Holy Spirit testify to the Father and the Son.