Stephen was one of the most profound leaders of the early church and the first martyr. As we study the book of Acts, we see other leaders at times skirmishing as they seek to find their way in founding the early church. Stephen, however, was exemplary in both his life and death. In the stoning of Stephen, we are given a powerful example of both how to live a life of grace and how to die with grace as followers of Jesus.
We find the story of Stephen in Acts 6-7. At this point in the infancy of the church, thousands were coming to Christ and the church was wrestling with how to best care for everyone’s needs. New believers lived together in tiny communities. They did life together and shared their belongings as they followed the way of Jesus. However, some of the widows in the group felt their needs were being overlooked. The Apostles gathered the people and decided to choose men who were known to be full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom. Seven men were chosen and among them was Stephen. These men would function as deacons and oversee the distribution of food and funds to those within the body of Christ.
Stephen’s Powerful Sermon
The description that Luke gives us of Stephen in Acts 6:5 is that Stephen was a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit. He was also full of God’s grace and power (Acts 6:8). As opposition to the early church increased, leaders of the synagogue began to argue with Stephen over theology. However, Scripture tells us that they could not stand up against “the wisdom the Spirit gave him as he spoke” (Acts 6:10). Because they could not stand up against his goldy wisdom they stirred up false witnesses to seize Stephen and bring accusations against him. When Stephen came before the Sanhedrin to testify, he gave a bold message explaining that the whole temple system was no longer necessary. God now intended to dwell in men. With the coming of the Holy Spirit people would now be God’s temple. As Stephen preached with boldness, he also showed how God appointed leaders through the history of Israel, were persecuted by the Jewish people themselves because they did not recognize what God was doing. Stephen also preached that sacrifices were no longer necessary because of the perfect sacrifice of God’s own Son, Jesus Christ. Stephen pointed out how the Jewish leaders had been stiff-necked and arrogantly rejected all of God’s plans for redemption.
The Jewish leaders became furious! Stephen looked up and said he saw heaven open and that Jesus Himself was standing at the right hand of God (Acts 7:55). It was almost as if Jesus Himself was giving Stephen a standing ovation for his great sermon.
The Sanhedrin became irate and dragged Stephen outside the city walls and began to stone him. While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed that the Lord would receive his spirit and that Father God would forgive those stoning him.
Here are 3 lessons from the stoning of Stephen:
God Does Extraordinary Work Through Those Filled with His Spirit
Stephen was an ordinary man just like you and me. However, He was full of the Holy Spirit and as such was gifted with wisdom, grace, and boldness. The Holy Spirit gifted him with wisdom so that Stephen would know how to best serve the poor among them. He gifted Him boldness in order that Stephen might preach passionately before the Sanhedrin. Even in the stoning of Stephen, the Holy Spirit poured through Stephen giving Him extraordinary grace. Those watching were given a glimpse of how the Holy Spirit could strengthen with grace those who would face suffering and death.
Imagine Saul, who later became Paul. I wonder what went through Saul’s mind as he watched Stephen being stoned and heard Stephen cry out for God to forgive those who were murdering him (Acts 7:59)? When Saul finally came to Christ a bit later on the road to Damascus, I wonder how the stoning of Stephen influenced Paul’s passion? Paul would suffer as well at the hands of angry people, and I wonder how many times he thought back to the stoning of Stephen and was strengthened to trust the Holy Spirit to provide the grace needed.
Though we are ordinary, the Holy Spirit can strengthen us with grace and wisdom. The key is we must daily ask to be filled with the Holy Spirit. As we press into Him and ask Him to fill us, He is able to do exceedingly beyond all we can ask or think.
Grace to Endure Suffering Comes When We Need it, Not Before
The grace with which Steve handled his stoning is remarkable and so like Christ’s death on the cross. Stephen said, “Lord Jesus receive my spirit” and “Do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:59-60). Both of these statements are so similar to what Jesus said as He hung on the cross, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke23:46), and “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
As we consider the stoning of Stephen, we might feel envious of his bold courage. The Apostle Paul taught that God’s grace is sufficient for every type of suffering (2 Corinthians 12:19). The grace that Stephen needed came the moment he needed it, not before. The grace and courage to cry out for God to forgive those stoning him came from the power of the Holy Spirit the moment.
The lesson for us is that the Holy Spirit promises to equip and empower us for every situation. We might not be brave by nature; however, the Holy Spirit promises to embolden us with the grace necessary to face all that God calls us to experience. It does no good to worry about how you will respond to suffering beforehand. This is why Jesus warned His disciples not to worry beforehand about how they would respond when handed over to be persecuted. They were to trust God’s provision of grace in the moment (Matthew 10:19). You can trust that the Holy Spirit will provide the grace that God promised. However, it comes the moment you need it – not before.
Martyrdom Is Tragic, but an Extraordinary Victory for Christ
We can look at martyrdom as absolute tragedy and it is for those who suffer at the hands of terrorists and for those they leave behind. However, God’s glory often shines through the martyrs in ways we can’t explain. The puritan Pastor, Thomas Brooks, wrote that God often draws nearest to his people when their persecution is the most intense. He often opens the windows of paradise to give them a glimpse of heaven in their suffering just as he did during the stoning of Stephen.
Martyrdom still occurs today in many parts of the world. In 2020,Boko Haram, the Islamic State’s terrorist group in Nigeria, beheaded Lawan Andimi, a Nigerian pastor whose hostage video encouraged and inspired many. Yet, God allowed him to be martyred. We may wonder, why? The great church father, Tertullian, wrote that “the blood of the martyrs is indeed the seed of the faith.” What he meant was that through the death of the martyrs, so many are called to greater faith. Witnessing the stoning of Stephen, I wonder if that didn’t play a part in Saul’s coming to Christ?
Thomas Hawkes was burned at the stake in 1555, for not renouncing his faith in the gospel of Christ. He had adamantly told his followers before his death that God’s grace would be sufficient. He promised them that as a sign, if the flames were bearable and if faith was worth it, he would raise his hands towards heaven and clap 3 times. As the flames were consuming his skin and he was suffering in utter agony, his followers waited for a sign. Finally, Thomas lifted his charred hands and clapped 3 times. God’s grace was indeed sufficient.
As we remember those who have been martyred and as we read of those who are currently threatened with death because of their faith, it is a good reminder to pray for the persecuted church. In order to pray more effectively check out www.persecution.com.
The stoning of Stephen is a powerful reminder to those of us with faith to remember that God can use us in extraordinary ways if we are filled with the Holy Spirit. Ask Him to fill you. When you are tempted to worry about suffering you might face, remind yourself, that God’s grace is sufficient at the time of suffering and not before. Though Martyrdom is tragic it is a victory for Christ and as believers we need to support those who are being persecuted with our prayers.