The First Martyr

Posted: September 9, 2018 in Acts, Uncategorized

Acts 7:54 – 8:3, “The First Martyr”

Someone had to be the first. As Stephen pointed out to the Sanhedrin, the messengers of God had always been hated and rejected, so it was inevitable that what happened to the prophets of Israel would eventually come to the followers of Jesus. Multitudes of people would be killed for their faith in the risen Jesus, and Stephen was the first.

It hasn’t ended. According to the Center for the Study of Global Christianity, an average of 90,000 Christians were martyred per year between 2005 and 2015. (http://www.foxnews.com/politics/2017/04/14/christian-persecution-how-many-are-being-killed-where-are-being-killed.html) Christians around the world (particularly in North Korea, and the infamous 10/40 window) face the reality of death every single day, simply because they name the Name of Jesus. This isn’t ancient history, nor is it a hypothetical situation of what might possibly happen to “someone” “someday.” It happens to many Christians every day, and we need (1) to be aware of it, (2) know how we can pray for our brothers and sisters who endure it, and (3) be prepared for our own much lighter version of it ourselves. We need to look at what happened to Stephen, and learn from the example he gave.

The church had begun, and although there was resistance to the apostles by the Jewish leadership, by & large they were able to continue their ministry without interruption. Yes, they had been placed on trial, jailed, and beaten, but whatever persecution there was against Christianity was limited to the Twelve.

All of that changed with Stephen. Stephen was one of seven Spirit-filled Christian men chosen by the church to assume some of the ministry tasks that, though important, were not the primary duties of the apostles – namely the administration of benevolence to Greek-speaking Christian widows. Stephen had a heart not only to help those within the church, but to evangelize those outside the church, and he actively took the gospel to Greek-speaking Jews in their own synagogue. And he was effective! So much so, that the synagogue rulers were threatened enough to find false witnesses against Stephen, accusing him of blasphemy against Moses & against the temple.

The bulk of Acts 7 records Stephen’s courtroom defense. Given the chance to speak, he testifies of God’s consistent historical faithfulness to the Jews, and their own consistent historical rebellion against Him, which continued to the present day. They were a stubborn, hard-hearted people – acting far more like Gentiles than the covenant-chosen people of God. They had always persecuted the prophets of the past, just like they persecuted and killed the Messiah who had been in their midst.

Obviously that message did not go over very well. The Jews hearing Stephen became enraged, and as a mob, they killed him – making Stephen the first man killed for his faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. Persecution had officially come to the rest of the church, where it remains until the day of Jesus’ return.

In this passage, we witness not only the death of Stephen, but also the introduction of Saul – thereby setting the stage for one of the most dramatic conversions in history. Saul/Paul did not start off as the apostle to the Gentiles; he was an enemy to the church. Stephen’s stoning was his first act as a persecutor of the Lord Jesus.

What are Christians to do when we face our own modern-day Sauls? (And make no mistake, they still exist!) What do we do when we find ourselves in similar situations as Stephen, being rejected and hated for our faith? We remain faithful to Jesus, keeping our eyes & hopes on Him! Jesus certainly never takes His eyes off us; we don’t take our eyes off Him.

Acts 7:54–8:3

  • Stephen’s death (54-60) / a vision (54-56)

54 When they heard these things they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed at him with their teeth.

  1. There was conviction and total rage in the room as they listened to Stephen. When the NKJV says “they were cut to the heart,” it translates the same word used by Luke during the apostles’ trial when Luke says that the Sanhedrin was “furious, and plotted to kill them,” (Acts 5:33) right before Gamaliel spoke up urging caution. Now the Sanhedrin was dealing with all of this gospel message and conviction of their sin all over again, and they returned to their initial reaction: fury. Literally, to saw that they were “cut to the heart” is to say that their hearts were “sawn in two.” Stephen’s accusations hit them like a spiritual gut punch, and their reaction was visceral.
  2. Of course, it wasn’t Stephen who truly convicted them; it was the Holy Spirit. Jesus taught that this would be one of the Spirit’s primary ministries among the world: John 16:8–11, “(8) And when He has come, He will convict the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment: (9) of sin, because they do not believe in Me; (10) of righteousness, because I go to My Father and you see Me no more; (11) of judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged.” We often think of God the Holy Spirit as working among the church (and He does!), but that is not His only The Holy Spirit works among the world convicting them of their sin & their need for forgiveness. Often this occurs through the Spirit-inspired word, which is “living & powerful & sharper than any two-edged sword,” (Heb 4:12), plunging deep into our hearts & minds, discerning what is/is not of God. Other times, the Spirit works through those whom He has filled & empowered to boldly witness of Jesus, as He did with Stephen. Such rock-solid conviction was wrought that the men in the room were crushed by the weight of it.
    1. Keep in mind that the gospel of Jesus is indeed good news, but it can also be offensive It is the power of salvation to those who believe (Rom 1:16), but it is the aroma of death to those who are perishing (2 Cor 2:16). To those who choose to reject Jesus, His gospel is a stone of stumbling and rock of offense (1 Pet 2:8). Some people are bound to be upset when confronted with the message of Jesus. That doesn’t mean we stop proclaiming it; it just means they confirm their own hardness against God.
  3. To say that this particular group got offended is an understatement. Luke says that “they gnashed at [Stephen] with their teeth.” This is the only use of this word in the New Testament, and one dictionary summarizes it as “a sign of violent rage,” (BDAG). In the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the word is used of the wrath of a king being like the roaring of a lion (Prov 19:12). Basically, these people were out-of-control angry, loosing their basic bodily functions. Imagine facing down a pack of rabid dogs – that was what stared Stephen in the face. He was in true danger, and he knew it.
    1. This doesn’t sound like the promises of the gospel that are so often presented today, does it? We’re often told that when we believe in Jesus, all our problems are solved & life gets easy. After all, God loves us and has a wonderful plan for our lives, right? God does love us, and His wonderful plan for us is to be soundly saved from sin and to live forever with Him in heaven…but that doesn’t mean that life gets easy on earth. Born-again Christians quite often face difficult times, endure terrible tragedies, and even face violent death. It doesn’t mean God doesn’t love us (He does!), or that God has forgotten us (He hasn’t!). God knows exactly what we go through, and He is right there in the midst of it with us. Stephen even received a vision confirming this very thing…

55 But he, being full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, 56 and said, “Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!”

  1. Can you imagine the moment? One minute you’re looking into rage-filled eyes of men about to lose control of themselves and kill you; the next, you’re looking into the heavenly throne room at King Jesus, roused to stand on your behalf. Amazing! From total anger to total comfort in a milli-second! That’s what happened to Stephen, as he was personally comforted by Almighty God.
  2. Notice: Stephen was comforted by the Trinitarian He was “full of the Holy Spirit,” saw “Jesus…the Son of Man,” and saw “the glory of God” with Jesus at His “right hand.” The entire Godhead intervened in the moment, offering comfort and peace to Stephen when he needed it most. Of course, Stephen had already been filled with the Holy Spirit in the past – it was one of his qualifications for being chosen for the benevolence ministry (6:3), and had apparently occurred again when Stephen shared the gospel in the synagogue (6:10). But although every born-again Christian is always indwelt by the Holy Spirit, we are not always filled with the Spirit 100% of the time. (Hence the reason Paul commands the Ephesian Christians to “be filled,” – Eph 5:18.) Luke does not explicitly state that Stephen was filled with the Holy Spirit when he preached to the Sanhedrin, though it seems highly likely that he was – but there is no question he was filled just prior to his death. God the Holy Spirit empowered him to face the terror of the moment, giving him exactly what he needed at the time he needed it. As the Spirit filled him on earth, Jesus appeared to him in heaven – not only confirming Stephen’s faith that Jesus truly is the Son of God risen from the dead, but standing in the position of power at God’s right hand, and standing in support of His faithful witness. And beyond that, Stephen even witnessed the glory of God, the visible manifestation of God’s radiant existence. Like Moses saw God’s glory on Mount Sinai, so did Stephen see God’s glory on Mount Zion. The Almighty Triune God showed Himself to Stephen – what could bring more comfort than that?
    1. Christian: our God does not abandon us…ever! We may or may not receive a vision like Stephen’s, but our Almighty God is just as present with us unseen as He was with Stephen, being seen. God the Spirit fills us, God the Son intercedes for us, God the Father looks upon us. He strengthens us and comforts us when we need Him most, whether or not we recognize His work when He does it. And why wouldn’t He? When you have faith in Christ Jesus, having received Him as your Lord & Savior, you are a child of God. You belong to His family, being both born and adopted as one of His own. Our Father does not leave us when we need Him the most! As parents, what goes through your mind when you see your son or daughter in pain? How much more our Heavenly Father! He comforts…so look to Him for His comfort! Too often we think we need to just “buck up” and do it on our own, screwing a smile on our face as if nothing’s wrong. Why lie to yourself and to God? Something is wrong, and you need God’s help. Guess what? He gives it! Look to Him – rely upon Him – He is right there for you.
    2. That’s true for born-again Christians – but what if you’re not born-again? What if you don’t know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you belong to the Lord Jesus Christ and are eternally saved? God sees you too, and He is available to comfort you…but in order to receive His comfort you must first receive Jesus as Lord. For now, your sin keeps you separated from God, but your sin can be forgiven in an instant because that was the reason Jesus died on the cross. He paid the price for your sin and rose to life from the grave, and because He did, you also can be made a child of God, comforted by Him. Turn away from your sins, turn to Christ – be saved, and be comforted!
  3. What was it about all this that was so comforting to Stephen? It was a vision of victory. The Sanhedrin and the other Jews in the room may have wanted Stephen dead, but there was Someone else who had power and authority over even them. The highest authority in all the universe stood in defense of Stephen, and Stephen’s faith was justified. He saw Jesus as nothing less than the “Son of Man,” the same title Jesus so often applied to Himself, and the picture of Daniel’s Messianic prophecy: Daniel 7:13–14, “(13) “I was watching in the night visions, And behold, One like the Son of Man, Coming with the clouds of heaven! He came to the Ancient of Days, And they brought Him near before Him. (14) Then to Him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, That all peoples, nations, and languages should serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion, Which shall not pass away, And His kingdom the one Which shall not be destroyed.” If Jesus is the Son of Man at the right hand of God in the midst of the glory of God (the “clouds”), then that meant that Jesus was totally victorious. He has conquered sin, death, and the devil, and the only thing that delays the consummation of all things is the perfect timing of God. At the time, it seemed that Stephen was the only one bowing his knee to King Jesus, but one day every knee will bow & every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord! (Our Jesus is the conquering King, already victorious over every enemy!)
  4. BTW – Is there significance to Jesus’ stance? Psalm 110:1 (also quoted by the author of Hebrews, and by Jesus Himself) shows God the Father talking to the Messiah, telling Him to “Sit at My right hand, till I make Your enemies Your footstool.” Does Jesus sit or stand at God’s right hand? No doubt He normally sits, but when there is occasion to stand, He stands. Stephen’s death was just such an occasion. Just as we might stand in support of a loved one, so Jesus stood in support of His beloved faithful servant and friend.
  • A stoning (57-58)

57 Then they cried out with a loud voice, stopped their ears, and ran at him with one accord; 58 and they cast him out of the city and stoned him. …

  1. Not only had Stephen’s sermon infuriated them, they considered his vision blasphemy. How could someone share a place with God, other than God? Normal people cannot…but that is what the Scriptures proclaim of Jesus, because He IS God. Stephen had just equated Jesus with the Son of Man (something which Jesus also did, and one of the charges against Him at His own trial – Mt 26:64), and was thereby putting Jesus on an equal platform with God. We know this to be theologically true, but to the Jewish leaders, this was blasphemy, and it pushed them over the edge. They couldn’t take it anymore, and they (be it the Sanhedrin, a mob, or a mix of both) rushed forth to kill him. 
  2. Notice how it was they ran at him: “with one accord.” Students of Acts have seen this word used before by Luke, to this point always in reference to the church. The word is literally “one-passion,” (ὁμοθυμαδόν) and it speaks of total unanimity in heart, purpose, and desire. For the church, their “homothumadon” was regarding prayer, fellowship, seeking the Spirit, and their worship of God. For the mob, their “homothumadon” for murder.
    1. That’s the difference between the church and the world. The church is to be united around the things that glorify God; the world often unites in the things that oppose Him. Be united in what counts!
  3. Question: Wasn’t this supposed to be illegal? This was the Sanhedrin’s pretended reason for delivering Jesus over to Pontius Pilate, saying that it was “not lawful for us to put anyone to death,” (Jn 18:31). The whole event with Stephen puts the lie to that statement. Some have speculated that Stephen’s stoning took place during a time that Pilate was not present in Jerusalem, but certainly it could have been stopped by Roman soldiers if it was truly illegal. In all likelihood, the act of execution by the Jews was technically illegal, but Rome didn’t really care if or not they did, as long as it didn’t cause problems for Rome. There are several instances in the New Testament where people were stoned by mobs, without any mention of Roman interference. The Sanhedrin could have killed Jesus if they wanted to; they didn’t, because they wanted Jesus to die in a specific way: via crucifixion. They could have thrown rocks at Jesus, but they wanted Jesus hanging from a cross with Roman approval as a warning to others not to follow. (Of course, Jesus did hang from a cross, but it accomplished precisely the opposite! Jesus’ death and resurrection is a grand invitation to follow Him, because He has paid every debt and won every victory!)

… And the witnesses laid down their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul.

  1. This is the 1st mention of Saul in the New Testament. Most people today know him by his Roman name, Paul – which Luke later adopts in Acts 13. “Saul” was the name he used around fellow Jews in Jewish areas; “Paul” was the name he used throughout the wider Roman empire, being a Roman citizen from the city of Tarsus. From his letters, we know that Saul/Paul was a student of Gamaliel (Acts 22:3) and a Pharisee, possibly being an official member of the Sanhedrin at the time. Being that he was born outside of Jerusalem, it’s quite possible that Saul was even a member of the synagogue in which Stephen preached the gospel, perhaps even being someone unable to best Stephen in theological debate (Acts 6:9-10). The fact that Luke labels him as a “young man” doesn’t mean that he was too young to be considered an authority. A “young man” could be anyone up to the age of 40. 
  2. More than providing a passing introduction, Luke shows Saul’s position of authority, and his approval. The mob of witnesses against Stephen “laid down their clothes at the feet” of Saul, meaning that he watched over their garments, looking on at their actions without interference. He may not have picked up a stone to cast, but he certainly enabled many others who did.

Not only did Stephen receive a vision from the Lord in the midst of all his suffering, Stephen kept his focus upon the Lord through prayer…

  • A prayer (59-60)

59 And they stoned Stephen as he was calling on God and saying, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 Then he knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.

  1. The first thing Stephen prayed for was personal release. We can only imagine the physical anguish of what it is like to have your body physically beaten to death by large rocks being hurled at you. There would be cuts, abrasions, broken bones, massive pain and head trauma – truly a terribly painful way for someone to die. (It’s something that Saul/Paul himself would experience at least once, almost ending in his death – Acts 14:19.) It comes as no surprise that Stephen turned his spirit over to the Lord, asking Jesus to take it from him. This wasn’t a morbid death-wish; it was a hope-filled prayer to be with Jesus sooner rather than later.
  2. Secondly, Stephen prayed for mercy towards his murderers. His death was unjust & undeserved, being truly sinful – but Stephen did not want them charged with this sin. The Jewish Sanhedrin and mob had enough to answer for, regarding their rejection of Jesus as Messiah. Although it is up to God to determine righteous justice, the heart of Stephen was compassionate towards those who demonstrated such hatred to him. Truly, Stephen had the attitude that Jesus taught during the Sermon on the Mount, not only being blessed for being persecuted for righteousness’ sake (Mt 5:10), but by praying for those who persecuted him (Mt 5:44). Stephen was so transformed by the love and grace of Jesus, that he loved those who hated him, asking mercy for those who were merciless towards him.
  3. Does it remind you of anyone? Stephen sounded a lot like Jesus! Jesus prayed much the same things while hanging from the cross: Luke 23:34, “(34) Then Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do.” And they divided His garments and cast lots.” Luke 23:46, “(46) And when Jesus had cried out with a loud voice, He said, “Father, ‘into Your hands I commit My spirit.’ ” Having said this, He breathed His last.” Stephen may not have used Jesus’ exact words, but he modeled the same heart.
    1. What is our response towards those who hate us? Not those whom we merely dislike or have difficulty getting along with – but with whom there is true hatred. How do we treat those who want us dead? For us in the American evangelical culture, situations like that are difficult to imagine, but for Christians around the world it is an everyday occurrence. For some, just walking down the street is dangerous. Their houses are marked – their relatives have abandoned them – their job opportunities are stolen from them. They come eye-to-eye with people every single day who view them as infidels and desire them dead. How are those Christians (all Christians) supposed to respond to people like that? We’re supposed to respond like Jesus & like Stephen. Likewise, we are to extend love, mercy, and compassion. Even when it seems like we ought to seek vengeful retribution, we don’t. Vengeance belongs to the Lord; not to us (Rom 12:19). Our message isn’t one of revenge; it is the gospel of reconciliation. We pray for mercy for those who don’t deserve mercy. After all, we didn’t deserve it either!
  • Saul’s persecution (1-3) / a new era for the church (1-2)

8:1 Now Saul was consenting to his death. …

  1. Saul was no passive bystander. Again, this was something of which he actively approved. The word for “consent” is a double-compound word, which has the idea of “with good consideration.” The way Luke portrays it, it is almost as if Saul was the Sanhedrin representative, demonstrating to the mob that their violence against Stephen had official approval from the leadership.
  2. This was something Saul/Paul remembered the rest of his life (Acts 22:20), but something he was unable to change. Although we may never forget our own sins, praise the Lord that in Christ, God does not hold them against us! As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us! (Ps 103:12)

… At that time a great persecution arose against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.

  1. Stephen’s death changed everything. Whereas earlier, opposition of the gospel was limited to opposition against the 12 apostles, it now spread to the entire church. Although Luke writes that “all” were scattered “except the apostles,” he certainly did not mean that only twelve Christians remained in Jerusalem. Elsewhere in the book of Acts, it’s clear that there was at least some church in Jerusalem, as it was a launching point for the apostles, prophets, and more. Most likely, Luke means that it was the Hellenistic (Greek-speaking) Christians that left Jerusalem, as the Hebrew (Aramaic-speaking) Christians could blend in more easily. Whatever the exact number, a large percentage of the church left town for their own safety.
    1. BTW – Praying for those who persecute you doesn’t necessarily mean you have to stick around and simply put up with the persecution. Authorities (when friendly) can be contacted, measures of protection can be taken, and people can obviously move (although they become refugees). We can turn the other cheek without giving ourselves over to abuse.
  2. There was good news, however: all the persecution became a tool used by God to spread the church beyond The time had come to push the baby bird out of its nest for a quick lesson in flying, and the baby church was pushed out to the rest of the Jewish world. Remember what Jesus told the apostles prior to His ascension – this fits exactly with His original outlined plan for them. Acts 1:8, “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” In Acts 1-7, the disciples of Jesus were His witnesses in Jerusalem – in Acts 8-12, the disciples are His witnesses throughout Judea and Samaria. It isn’t until Acts 13 that Paul and Barnabas begin their missionary journeys and take the gospel to the end of the earth. But what was it that initially drove the gospel beyond Jerusalem? Persecution. It wasn’t until Christians were forced to leave, that they actually left. As they left, they took the message of forgiveness through Jesus Christ with them everywhere they went.
  3. Persecution is never desirable, but it can be helpful. Persecution has a way of separating the wheat from the tares & the sheep from the goats. In cultures that are friendly to Christians (such as most of the USA), it can be easy to slip in among the church without actually being part of the church. False conversion runs rampant. Yet when there is a cost to being a disciple of Christ, false conversions are few. People who don’t have 100% of their hope in Jesus don’t want to be lumped in with those who do, if those who do experience hardship for their hope. But beyond the idea of false conversion is that of true commitment. When true Christians are persecuted, their faith may be tested through fire, but it’s strengthened – it’s purified. If our only hope is Jesus, then how much more precious is that hope, when all our earthly comforts fail! Christians who endure persecution are often some of the strongest Christians you’ll ever meet. [India]
  4. To Luke’s point, persecution also has a way of backfiring upon itself. Instead of smothering evangelism, persecution actually encourages it. (Ironically, it’s the ease of American Christianity today that has led to apathy regarding evangelism!) When Christians endure state-sanctioned hardship, they are forced to hang onto their faith with everything they have…and that’s something noticed by their neighbors. Soon, people want to know the reason for the hope we have within us (2 Pet 3:15). Even when directly facing their persecutors, Christians become more bold with their faith, clearly proclaiming Jesus, stating they will never abandon Him. This has been the case throughout church history. Considered by many to be one of the most influential men of the church fathers, the 2nd century presbyter of Carthage, Tertullian wrote a massive work of apologetics, defending the existence of the church to a Roman empire bent on persecuting them. For fifty chapters, he details how the imperial persecution of Christians was irrational, but concluding that no matter what it was Rome did, the church would not be destroyed. “Semen est sanguis Christianorum,” (Apologeticum, 50.) “The seed of Christians is blood,” or, as often paraphrased in translation, “blood [of the martyrs] is the seed of the church.” It was true then, and it’s true today.

2 And devout men carried Stephen to his burial, and made great lamentation over him.

  1. Closes the narrative on Stephen. Although a mob was responsible for his death, more reasonable “devout men” were responsible for his burial. Stephen’s ministry was brief, but it left an impact, and these men mourned him.
  2. The NET Bible makes an interesting point about the “great lamentation,” noting that the Mishnah Sanhedrin tract 6.6 prohibits mourning for those who were stoned to death. “And the relatives come and greet the judges and the witnesses, as if to say, we hold nothing against you, since [we know that] your verdict was just. And they would not [observe rituals of] mourning, but they would grieve, since grief is only in the heart.” (https://www.sefaria.org/Mishnah_Sanhedrin.7?lang=bi) On this, the NET Bible says of Luke’s note, “The remark points to an unjust death.” IOW, these devout men (be they converted Christians or unconverted Jews…Luke doesn’t say) knew that Stephen’s stoning was undeserved. They gave him a lamentation and burial due to an innocent man; not a heretic. Bottom line: Stephen’s death was unjust, and the people knew it & didn’t hesitate to say so.
  3. Of course, that didn’t stop the hatred of others, as seen in Saul…
  • A new enemy for the church (3)

3 As for Saul, he made havoc of the church, entering every house, and dragging off men and women, committing them to prison.

  1. The young theologian Saul now had a new phase of his career: Grand Inquisitor and Persecutor of the church. “He made havoc of the church,” meaning that he wanted the church destroyed. This is the only time in the NT this word is used, and it describes a violent act, “Like the laying waste of a vineyard by a wild boar,” (AT Robertson). The name of Saul drove fear into the hearts of Christians everywhere in Jerusalem (and beyond!). Persecution was a new reality for them.
  2. Yet even here, there is a silver lining. This is who Saul was; it was not who Saul remained. Once he was confronted by the Lord Jesus Christ, Saul was instantly transformed, and his whole life was made new. Instead of destroying the church, he worked to build up the church. Instead of dragging men and women off to prison, Paul was often the one taken to prison. Much of Paul’s greatest contribution to Christianity occurred because he was in prison! After all, that’s where many of his epistles were penned. Saul/Paul went from being one of the greatest threats ever faced by the church, to one of the greatest missionaries ever known by the church. That’s what the grace of Jesus Christ can do! Praise the Lord for gospel transformation!
    1. Guess what? It’s not just for Paul – it’s for all of us! If you are in Christ Jesus, you have been radically transformed! We may not have been grand inquisitors or persecutors, but even if we weren’t enemies of the church-at-large, we were enemies of God. We rebelled against Him, and we deserved His judgment. Paul wrote about it so well: 1 Corinthians 6:9–11, “(9) Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites, (10) nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners will inherit the kingdom of God. (11) And such were some of you. But you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the Spirit of our God.” In the past, we were those horrible things, but in the present in Christ Jesus, we are something gloriously different! We are cleansed, set apart, made right in the sight of God, and made ready to see Him in eternity for all eternity…we are saved! We went from being His enemies to His children, all because of the work of Jesus. Just like Paul was transformed, so were we, and praise God for it!
    2. Have you experienced this transformation? Maybe you’re not sure…you would know it, if you had. When someone is born-again by the grace of Jesus Christ, that person knows – that person has the confirmation in his/her heart given by the Holy Spirit. Maybe you don’t know if you’re more like the persecutor Saul or the saved-by-grace Paul. You can be sure today!

Conclusion:

With the death of Stephen, a new era dawned upon the church: one of persecution. Stephen became the first martyr of the church age, but he certainly was not the last. Many others of his own generation, and countless others through the centuries have endured similar fates. But…the enemies of the church are not victorious; King Jesus is! Worldly enemies attempt to stamp out the church, but it cannot be done. They try to silence the gospel, but it will not be silenced. Persecution causes the message of Jesus to only ring louder, even to the ends of the earth! Our Jesus has all victory, even over persecution.

And He does not abandon His own. Jesus knows the struggles we and all Christians face, even those who suffer and die for His names’ sake. As with Stephen, He sees us, comforts us, and even stands on our behalf. He welcomes home His saints, and proclaims to them, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” He is always faithful to us, no matter what it is we face.

So you be faithful to Him. Is persecution a reality? Without question. It has been throughout history around the world, with the United States being the exception that proves the rule. But even here, our window is closing. The time is coming (and is currently arriving) that public Christianity comes at a cultural cost. That cost is worth it! Beloved, be ready for hatred and opposition – it is nothing new. But don’t respond with hate; respond with love. Like Jesus, like Stephen, pray for those who persecute you, entrusting yourself to the Almighty God, Who is more than capable of caring for your needs.

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