This evening we come to the end of our series in Acts chapters 5 to 7. Over the last few weeks we have been particularly focused on the life of Stephen, and the extensive record of his final speech before the Jewish Sanhedrin, the religious court of his day. Stephen had been brought before them under charges of speaking blasphemy against the temple and the law in the name of Jesus Christ. And over the last few weeks we have been reading his speech as he defends the gospel message in front of the Jewish religious leaders.
This evening we reach the climax of Luke’s narrative. This evening we are considering the martyrdom of Stephen – Acts chapter 7 verses 54 to 60. So perhaps you would have that passage open in front of you. Acts chapter 7 verses 54 to 60.
I want to work through these verses not in fact focusing on Stephen, but rather focussing on Jesus, because that is where Stephen has his attention. Stephen is focused on Jesus. Therefore my three headings this evening are number 1) Jesus is already reigning in heaven, number 2) Jesus and his servants face opposition, and number 3) Jesus is the example to follow. You will find those headings on your sermon outline on the back of your service sheet.
JESUS IS ALREADY REIGNING IN HEAVEN
So my first heading: Jesus is already reigning in heaven. Jesus is already reigning in heaven. That is what Stephen knows to be true. That is the perspective that Stephen has even as he stands before the Sanhedrin and faces a cruel death. It is that understanding and awareness that enables him to stand boldly before these powerful rulers and declare the truth about Jesus. Stephen knows that Jesus is already reigning in heaven and one day Jesus will also be seen to be reigning on earth.
You can imagine the Jewish leaders sitting all around Stephen – hostile and accusing, anger in the faces and body language. In some ways they feel threatened by Stephen’s teaching. They think it is blasphemous. They think that he has been speaking against God’s temple and God’s law. Those are serious charges that have been brought against him.
And yet rather than soften his message Stephen boldly challenges them about their behaviour. As we saw last week, verses 51 to 53, he accuses these leaders of perverting justice. He lays the accusation against them that they are following in the steps of their ancestors. He says they are repeating the pattern of opposing God’s truth and God’s messengers. They have in fact killed Jesus, the Messiah, the Righteous One.
And what Stephen has been saying in his speech, and in particular his accusation that these leaders are among those who reject God’s truth, has so enraged them that we read in verse 54, do take a look, Acts chapter 7 verse 54:
54 When they heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. 55 But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” (Acts 7:54-56, NIV)
Stephen is so aware of God’s presence, that even in the face of this hostile council, he looks up to heaven and he sees a vision of how things really are. The powerful Jewish leaders all around him are angry, the fury is in the air, and yet Stephen doesn’t back track and softened what he has said. Instead he proclaims that Jesus is the risen and exalted one. Jesus is reigning in heaven.
Sometimes when I have been on holiday, I have arrived at the place where I am staying and it has been very dark outside. I have climbed into bed and gone to sleep with little idea of where I am and what lies outside the window. But in the morning when I get up and draw back the curtains suddenly I see the light of day, and the view outside the window. On one occasion I was staying in a cabin on the edge of a beach, and the view first thing in the morning when I opened the curtains was absolutely stunning with the sunlight and the water.
Stephen looks up to heaven and the curtains are drawn back. He is able to view the glory of God and “the Son of Man standing at the right hand” of God the Father (Acts 7: 56, NIV). Jesus reigning in heaven.
Now at one level you and I might think that it is entirely to be expected to find Jesus at the right hand of God. After all as Christians we know that Jesus has risen and ascended. This vision makes sense to us. But remember for the Jewish leaders this is not at all to be expected. They certainly were not prepared to accept that Jesus was reigning in heaven. And what Stephen says is enough to make them furious.
So what is it that Stephen is actually claiming? What do the Sanhedrin understand him to be saying? Well to appreciate the significance of Stephen’s vision, it helps to go back to our Old Testament reading, Daniel chapter 7. Perhaps you would put a piece of paper in Acts and turn to the book of Daniel with me. Page 892 in the Bibles in the pews. Daniel chapter 7 verse 9.
9 As I looked, thrones were set in place, and the Ancient of Days took his seat. His clothing was as white as snow; the hair of his head was white like wool. His throne was flaming with fire, and its wheels were all ablaze. 10 A river of fire was flowing, coming out from before him. Thousands upon thousands attended him; ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him. The court was seated, and the books were opened. (Daniel 7:9-10, NIV)
And jumping down to verse 13:
13 In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. 14 He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed. (Daniel 7:13-14, NIV)
Daniel, hundreds of years before Jesus, saw a prophetic vision of the Son of Man being led into the presence of God and given authority, glory and sovereign power. The person of Daniel’s vision is worshipped by all peoples, nations, and men of every language. His kingdom is established forever. And Stephen uses this prophetic language to describe the vision that he sees of Jesus standing at the right hand of God. Stephen uses some of Daniel’s words as he stands before the Sanhedrin.
It is in fact the same language that Jesus himself used before this same high priest just a few months earlier. We read in Mark chapter 14 that the High Priest asked Jesus “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed One?” (Mark 14:61, NIV). And Jesus replied, “I am, . . . And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.” (Mark 14:62, NIV) It is the same language. Jesus had repeatedly used the term Son of Man to describe himself, and the High Priest knew that Jesus was claiming to be the fulfilment of Daniel’s prophecy – making himself equal with God.
And now here is Stephen, declaring before the same Jewish leaders, that Jesus Christ has now been enthroned in heaven at the right hand of God. Jesus is reigning in heaven. He is at God’s right hand, in the position of power and authority. Jesus has rightly been enthroned with God because he is God – God the Son. He shares God’s glory. He is to be worshipped. And every knee must one day bow before him.
I think it is hard for us as Christians today to keep that reality at the front of our mind – to remember that Jesus is reigning in heaven. When we look up towards heaven (metaphorically, since heaven is not physically located above us), but when we metaphorically look up what we see all too often is clouds. They don’t move apart to give us a glimpse of heaven.
And yet I think Stephen encourages us to have that heavenly perspective all the time. Even before he sees the vision, he is standing boldly before the Jewish leaders declaring the Christian message that Jesus is Lord and God. He has the heavenly reality regularly before him, even without the special vision. He knows that Jesus is reigning.
When you and I actively remember that Jesus is reigning, it makes a difference to how we live. It affects our lives, just as it affected Stephen’s. The glimpse into eternity enables us to stand up under opposition. Enables us to make right choices now. Enables us to keep going as a Christian.
For instance as you face persecution in the office, or among your friends, you can remind yourself that Jesus is standing at the right hand of God, standing on your behalf, eager to see you stand firm for him. If you are feeling lonely, or feel overwhelmed with pressure, you can look up and remind yourself that God is close, reigning, watching. And as we approach the end of life, the reality of Jesus reign, and his welcoming arms, are the encouragement we need to see us through death.
Even if God at times does not feel very real it is still the case that if we could peal back the clouds and look into heaven, we would see the reality of Jesus in glory, reigning in heaven, awaiting the time when his rule will be extended over all the earth. Jesus is already reigning in heaven.
JESUS AND HIS SERVANTS FACE OPPOSITION
But Jesus’ reign, his kingship, is a threat to many people. Jesus was rejected when he was on earth, and he and his servants are still rejected today. Jesus and his servants face opposition. That is my second heading this evening. Jesus and his servants face opposition.
That is one of the main points that Stephen has been making in his speech, this speech that we have been studying together over the last few weeks. Stephen has made it clear as he has been defending the gospel before the Sanhedrin, that the Jewish leaders have always opposed God’s prophets. Time and again they have opposed God’s true people. Joseph faced opposition from his brothers. Moses faced opposition from the people of Israel. The Israelites hardened their hearts in the desert. The people rebelled against God (and his prophets) during the time of the kings. Rejection of God’s messengers has been one of the themes that Stephen has been drawing out in his speech.
And as we saw last week, Stephen concludes by telling the High Priest and the Jewish leaders that they have added to those past calamities by rejected Jesus. They handed Jesus over to the Romans to be crucified. They opposed the very Son of God. Do take a look back to Acts chapter 7 verses 51 to 53. Acts chapter 7 verse 51. Stephen concludes:
51 “You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit! 52 Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him— 53 you who have received the law that was put into effect through angels but have not obeyed it.” (Acts 7:51-53, NIV)
Stephen is confronting these leaders with the fact that they have rejected Jesus, they have rejected the Righteous One, they have rejected the Messiah. Instead of being sensitive to the Holy Spirit they have demonstrated hardness of heart. Their ears have not been open to the truth. They have not been prepared to accept that Jesus is the true King and they have rejected and opposed him.
Now that of course does not change the fact that Jesus is reigning in heaven, but it does indicate the pattern of things to come. Even the Jewish leaders, the supposedly good and upright people of society, rejected and opposed the holy and anointed one. Even the religious leaders were prepared to commit murder in opposition to Jesus. Jesus faced opposition. And Jesus’ servants will also face opposition.
In the UK, if someone wins the lottery, particularly if it is for a very large sum of money, you can guarantee that the press will turn up on their doorstep very soon afterwards, looking for an interview, asking them for a story. The status of that particular individual changes overnight. Friends often start treating them differently. Long lost relatives suddenly start crawling out of the woodwork. Now of course I am not out to recommend the lottery, far from it, but my point is that the way people treat you changes when there is a major change in your life.
In a similar way when you become a Christian, people start treating you differently. The persecution and opposition is perhaps subtle in our society. But Jesus warned his disciples that they would be handed over to the local councils and flogged; they would be brought before governors and kings. In fact he told them that “ All men will hate you because of me . . .” (Mt 10:22).
Jesus knew that he would face opposition and he knew that his servants would face opposition. Just like the master the servant also will be persecuted. We see that being worked out in the life of the early church. And now as Stephen stands before the Sanhedrin he experiences exactly the same thing as Jesus. He experiences exactly what Jesus foretold. He experiences opposition. These religious leaders with hard hearts are unwilling to hear what Stephen says. Look at what we are told in verse 57 and 58. Acts chapter 7 verse 57:
57 At this they [the Sanhedrin] covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, 58 dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul. (Acts 7:57-58, NIV)
They can no longer physically attack Jesus, but they can attack his servants. And the Jewish leaders, and the Roman leaders after them, do just that. They arrested the apostles and had them flogged, Acts chapter 5. Now they have Stephen before them. These leaders have an opportunity here to repent of their past actions and turn to God. They have an opportunity to depart from the predictable actions of their forefathers. They have an opportunity to respond to the truth that Stephen has confronted them with. They have the opportunity to bow the knee before the reigning Lord Jesus.
But no, they continue to reject Jesus and his servants, and this time the Jewish leaders are so angry at what Stephen has said that they stone him to death.
How about you? This passage of Acts, the section that we are looking at this evening, has already presented us with a vision of the reigning Lord Jesus. How do you respond to the truth of what the Bible says? Have you bowed your knee before Jesus? Maybe you feel so angry with all this talk about Jesus that you feel like picking up a stone and throwing it at someone. If only you could knock Jesus off his throne you wouldn’t have to submit to him as Lord.
That was what the Jewish leaders were doing as they dragged Stephen outside the city. They picked up the stones from the ground and hurled them at Stephen. All their pent up fury at the arrogance and seeming blaspheme from these ill-educated peasants. They hated Jesus. They hated his servant. They didn’t want to acknowledge that Jesus is King. They denied the truth and killed Stephen so that they would no longer have to listen to his words.
But Jesus is King. Jesus is sovereign. Jesus is ruling over the affairs of men and watching over his servants. In fact as the book of Acts progresses it becomes clear just how much Jesus is in control of what happens to Stephen. In verse 58 we are told that “the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul.” (Acts 7:58, NIV). If you know the story of Acts you will realise that Saul went on to become one of the greatest Christian leaders of all time. Jesus confronted Saul with a vision, just like the one Stephen saw, and Saul also came to bow the knee, turning from a life of persecuting Christians, to a life of building them up.
Jesus is Lord, will you bow the knee, or are going to keep on throwing stones at Jesus and his servants?
If you have already turned to Christ and become a Christian, then you are his disciple, his servant and you will face opposition. Jesus and his servants face opposition. And many Christians around the world know the reality of that opposition. Christians in Iraq, in China, in Malaysia, in North Korea, who face significant opposition and persecution.
In a much smaller way you and I face opposition even in this country. Our values and beliefs are laughed at by many of the leaders in our society. In the business world you might well face opposition for wanting to tell clients or management the truth. In hospitals and schools you might face awkward questions if you speak to the children or patients about your faith. As a pupil at school you face ridicule even for saying that you are a Christian.
But that is no reason to give up. Rather Jesus asks us to go into all the world and be his witnesses even though that will involve opposition. The world rejected Jesus and the world will reject his servants. Being a Christian is not supposed to be comfortable. We are to declare that Jesus is King even when people do not want to hear it. Because it is true that he is reigning in heaven and one day he will reign on earth.
As Christians we also have Jesus’ words of encouragement:
“22 Blessed are you when men hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man. 23 Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven.” (Luke 6:22-23, NIV)
Stephen’s experience before the Sanhedrin is the pattern of how things are. They opposed Jesus. They opposed Stephen. There will be many who oppose us, perhaps even in increasing measure.
JESUS IS THE EXAMPLE TO FOLLOW
So if opposition is inevitable for the Christian. How do we respond? How should you and I respond in the face of persecution? Well we are to follow Jesus’ example. And that is my third heading. Jesus is the example to follow. Jesus is the example to follow.
Take a look at how Stephen faces death, verses 59 and 60.
59 While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep. (Acts 7:59-60, NIV)
Stephen’s death is truly astounding to me. I hope and pray that I never have to face a painful death for being a Christian. I ask that Jesus would give me the strength to stand firm for him even if that was to be the case. But Stephen does more than stand firm. He is so full of the Holy Spirit that he follows the manner of Jesus in how he dies. The Holy Spirit enables him to be like Jesus in character.
Just think for a moment about the similarities. Jesus on the cross said “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34). Stephen here prays verse 60, “do not hold this sin against them.” (Acts 7:60). Luke tells us in his account of the crucifixion that at “about the sixth hour . . . Jesus called out with a loud voice, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.’ When he had said this, he breathed his last” (Luke 23:44 & 46). And here in Acts chapter 7 Stephen entrusts himself to God, with similar words, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” (Acts 7:59).
The point of such similarity is not, look how great Stephen is, the point is look how great Jesus is. Jesus’ death on the cross was so revolutionary that it has enabled his followers to face opposition in an amazing way. Jesus is the example to follow – particularly in the face of opposition. And that is exactly what Stephen does – he follows Jesus’ example.
When a team of explorers plan an expedition, like an expedition to the North Pole, they learn as much as they can from those who have gone before. They study past expeditions and look at the equipment used and the way the previous explorers dealt with the situations they encountered. The Bible encourages us as Christians to look to those who have gone before, but in particular we are told to look to Jesus and follow his example.
So do you, do I, manage to follow Jesus’ example when we face opposition? How do we compare to Jesus? As you face ridicule at school for being a Christian do you retaliate with name calling and abuse? Well no, that wouldn’t be following Jesus’ example. When you are told to keep quiet and not allow your religious views to get in the way, do you give in? Well, no, Jesus’ example was one of declaring the truth boldly even when it resulted in his murder.
Jesus’ example is one of strength in the face of opposition. The strength to stand up for the truth, the strength to not retaliate even when provoked. And God’s Holy Spirit works in you and me to give us the strength to react in a Christ-like manner as we face opposition. Whatever resistance we come up against, whether it is subtle (like listeners with closed ears), or hostile (with our job being taken away), it is important in that situation to remember, like Stephen, that Jesus is the example to follow. When we face opposition, and even persecution, we are to follow Jesus’ example of standing up for the truth, and showing love even to those who persecute us.
Stephen’s final words, his martyrdom, is entirely consistent with what has gone before. Over the last few weeks we have seen Stephen to be a man of God who is bold in his preaching, powerful in ministry, and firm in the face of opposition. But more importantly Stephen has directed our eyes to Jesus.
He has tried to help the Sanhedrin see the truth about Jesus. And what he has said, has helped us see the truth about Jesus. For Jesus is reigning in heaven. Yes he and his followers face opposition on earth. Yes, Jesus set the example of behaviour in the face of suffering. But much more importantly Jesus is reigning and one day soon his reign will be extended over all the earth.
If we were to metaphorically peal back the clouds and gaze into heaven we would indeed see “. . . the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:55). He has been “given authority, glory and sovereign power” his dominion “. . . is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.” (Daniel 7:13-14)