Jack Graham - When Hope Turns to Sight
Stephen was the first Christian martyr, the first one to give his life, to die for faith in Jesus Christ. Many others would follow, including the apostles and the fathers of the church early on and through the centuries, and to this very day there are men and women who are laying down their lives for the Gospel, who are taking up the cross and following Jesus all the way, even if it means death. Stephen was a godly deacon. He was not an apostle; he was not a member of the apostle band, the disciple band who were with Jesus, he was not a preacher or a pastor-teacher. He was a godly devoted deacon. A lay person who served the Lord and took the assignment that God had given him and did it well. And then God gave him more and more opportunity to share the faith.
We're told that Stephen was a man full of the Spirit; he was full of faith; he was full of wisdom. He had a good reputation. He was a mighty man. But in saying all of that, Stephen was a very ordinary man. He was not a spiritual hero at the outset. Instead he was as I said, serving the Lord behind the scenes. He was ministering with mercy to people who needed his help. But what set Stephen apart was his courage, and his character. He lived a short life. He was a relatively young man when he died, stoned to death. But he leaves a long, long legacy. We're still talking about him today.
And so, we're going to pick up really at the conclusion of what happened to Stephen in Acts chapter 7, beginning at verse 54, "Now when they heard these things they were enraged". What things? Stephen had preached a powerful and persuasive message regarding Christ, and so they were enraged with they heard these things, "and they ground their teeth at him. But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God". Don't gaze at your problems. Glance at your problems; gaze at the Lord.
"And he looked up into heaven and he 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 he cried out with a loud voice, falling to his knees, 'Lord, Lord, do not hold this sin against them.' And when he had said this, he fell asleep".
There are three chapters in this story in this message that I want to mention to you. The first one in this profile of courage and faith, and faithfulness, is what I want to simply call the chapter on character, because this man was a man who was filled with integrity. Filled with the Spirit, filled with faith, filled with wisdom and this comprised his character. Now character is a sum total of the choices that we make in life. And so when Stephen chose to follow Christ he was not a part of the original group, the 120 in the first chapter of Acts. He most likely was someone who came to faith on the day of Pentecost. He was baptized and became a part of the church. He spoke Greek and thus his name is a Greek name, Stephanos or Stephen. And so he is a part of this family of God now, and he is chosen because he is a man of good reputation.
Acts chapter 6 tells us that these deacons, these godly men were selected and set apart and he was one of these men, and it appears to be the servant-leader among these deacons. But he was not a character, he had character! A great reputation. Somebody said that character is what you are in the dark, and that's true. Another person said, glibly, well, the character is when you can sell your pet parrot to the town gossip! That's character! All right? That's what you are when nobody is looking, or no one else is listening. And Stephen was a man like that, and so are we to be people of character. It's interesting to me that his character shows up on his countenance.
In Acts chapter 6, and verse 15, there's a remarkable verse of Scripture there which tells us as he is speaking that his face is shining like an angel. There was something supernatural about this man. His very presence radiated the Lord, and there was the character of joy and peace and the greatness of his life, and the godliness of his spirit. This is what was shining. Everything that was on the inside was showing up on the outside. Well, we ought to always reflect the beauty of holiness. That's character. You can lose your health, you can lose your wealth, you can lose your strength, you can lose your beauty, you can lose even your mind, but we must not lose our character. You can keep your character. Character never depreciates over time.
In fact the Apostle Paul said, 2 Corinthians 4:16, "The inner person is being renewed every day". That we are strengthened day after day. So nothing takes longer in your life to build than your character resulting in your reputation. But let me also remind you that nothing could be destroyed quicker than your character by a single stoke of sin, so we must always be on guard to maintain our character and our integrity. The world celebrates success; the world celebrates beauty; the world celebrates money and all the rest, but let us celebrate character. Let us celebrate the devotion of a godly life. And you say, how do you live like this? How you develop this kind of character?
He was full of the Spirit. In fact, three times, you can read it, three times in these passages we're told that Stephen was full of the Spirit, full of the Spirit, full of the Spirit! And to be full of the Spirit means that we live in the fullness and the freshness of the blessing of God, that we live in the abundance of Christ who lives in us. The Scripture commands us in Ephesians 5:18 to be filled with the Holy Spirit which means to be controlled by the Spirit. We are to be continually, conspicuously, controlled by the Spirit of God who lives in us. "Christ in us" is the secret to life, living life with character. it's the fruit of the Spirit which is recorded in Galatians 5:22 and 23: "For the fruit of the Spirit is love and joy and peace and patience and kindness and goodness and gentleness and self-control and faithfulness".
This is the fruit of the Spirit which is really representative of the character of Christ in us. You look at the fruit of the Spirit there: love, joy, peace, patience and all the rest, that's a portrait of Christ. Christ in us produces these great virtues, these great qualities which represents the character of Jesus who lives in us! So we're not talking about human behavior modification or just doing the best we can to live a good life. We're talking about allow the Spirit of God to control us and, therefore, fill us with His love and all the rest that He gives.
There's a contrast here in that the crowd that heard Stephen preach this message about Christ and it was a convicting and compelling message, they were ultimately filled with rage. They were grinding their teeth and putting their hands up to their ears to stop the noise. They were resisting the Holy Spirit. They were enraged! They were filled with rage and anger. And contrast that, rather than being obsessed and possessed by anger, Stephen who is possessed of the Spirit, who prays and loves and forgives and preaches and stands and all the rest, because of his character. His character was really framed in the small things in his life. Again, he didn't start out on the stage of history, but rather behind the scenes, off stage, waiting on tables, serving poor widows in the church, ministering God's love in small ways. I tell people if you're too big for a little job, then you're too little for a big job, serving Christ.
And that brings us to the next chapter which is courage; the courage of Stephen. He is called upon to bring a message. He is accused of being one of the Christ followers, and so rather than running and hiding, he stood, and before the counsel of Israel, before the religious leaders who were already angry, he brought a powerful message. And it's obvious when you read this message, and it's recorded for us there in the Scriptures, that he was saturated with God's word. He knew the great stories of the Bible. He was prepared. You know, we ought to always be prepared to give a witness when our faith is attacked, and give a reason for the hope that was within us.
So, again, not an apostle, not a pastor-teacher, but a man full of Christ, full of the Spirit, full of the word of God, he stands to speak and he courageously stands up and speaks up as his faith is under attack. And this message is so compelling. In fact, we're told in the scriptures that they couldn't resist it, they couldn't debate what he was saying. He was just so powerful that they couldn't say anything but what a powerful message! He boldly proclaimed the message of the Gospel and announced Jesus as the Messiah. But when you read this at some point you have to ask yourself, you have to be thinking, you know, I was just thinking, as Stephen's preaching this message, he had to at some point have thought to himself, "This isn't going really well".
When people start grinding their teeth at you and covering up their ears, not going well! And if Stephen had been like the average Christian, he might have said something like, "Okay, I see you're not getting it. I see you're not receiving my message, so let's just call it a day and I'm going to go home and have dinner with my wife and kids". Many Christians unfortunately not when they're martyred, but simply when they're mocked for their faith, fold their tents and go home, unwilling to stand up and speak up for faith in Christ. But Stephen, at some point he said, "You know what, I'm going for it! This may be the last sermon I preach", and it was. Someone described preaching as a dying man speaking to dying men. And this may be the last message I preach. This may be the last message you hear. But regardless of that, this man said, "I'm here, I'm accountable to God, I'm going to be faithful in my witness"!
Maybe he looked over to the side and he saw a young Saul of Tarsus who was a part of that band of unbelievers, but he saw something in his eyes. Maybe he saw conviction and he thought, "This is the only time some of these people are going to hear the Gospel, so I'm going all the way. I'm all in". And so he preached a whole message and it wasn't necessarily complimentary all the way. In fact, look what he said. This is not necessarily a way to win friends and influence people. Look what he said in verse 51: "You stiff-neck people, uncircumcised in heart and ear, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One. (That's Jesus; they killed John the Baptist. And then, watch this) whom you have now betrayed and murdered! (You murdered Jesus; you killed Jesus.) You who received the law delivered by angels and did not keep it".
What's happening here? He is confronting this religious crowd with their sin. See, the problem with so many people is their pride and they don't see their own sin. They think they're too good to go to hell. But he looks right at them and says, "You have broken the law that you have been given, 'For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God!' And you proved it by murdering Jesus". And so Stephen went all the way with the message, knowing it's the bad news that makes the good news so good! That we can have a new life in Christ! And it is that cross and the resurrection that is the message of the Christian faith. And, you say, where's the resurrection in this message? Well, we see it really when Stephen is stoned. They're so angry with Stephen, they drag him outside of town, they take off their coats, put them at the feet of Saul of Tarsus, and they begin pummeling this man, bludgeoning him with these huge stones and rocks.
And as they're beating him down, he's looking up into heaven and as he had said, as we read, "I see Jesus standing! I see the glory of Jesus at the right-hand of the throne, standing"! He looked beyond this world into the unseen world that is very, very real. It's all around us. But by faith, with the eyes of his heart he looked into heaven, and in his suffering, in his dying he sees Jesus, standing! And when you see Jesus here, standing, it is demonstrative of King Jesus who is standing at the throne of God. And let me tell you this, dear people. When you're suffering, and when you're dying, when you are breathing your last, there is a supernatural grace to die. Dying grace. And God opens the eyes of the believer to see beyond this life; and though he was brutalized and beaten and bludgeoned and bloodied, it was a violent death, a certainly it hurt; it was painful, it was real; and people who were left behind, we're told that devout men wept much and buried Stephen.
There was pain, there was suffering, there was heartache, there was loss! But, oh, there was heaven and Jesus at the throne of God! And you can know that if Jesus is on the throne of your life that He is in control of the universe, He is in control of your situation, and when you suffer, when you hurt, it's not out of control; He is in control! Jesus is standing at the right-hand of the Father in heaven! And not only as King Jesus, and "every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord". But not only standing as king, but standing, as priest, interceding for us. And I like to think the scene in heaven, while this terrible beating is taking place on earth, that the scene in heaven is so beautiful and Jesus is standing, and as Stephen ascends into heaven... Oh, by the way, Stephen knew where to look when he was in trouble! He looked up! He knew where Jesus was. Acts 1:11 He had ascended unto heaven; He had ascended into heaven! "And this same Jesus who has ascended into heaven will so come in the same way that you've seen Him go".
So Stephen was taught well! He knew where to look in his last breaths on earth! He looked up into heaven and there was Jesus standing. Now in every other place in the Bible Jesus is noted as seated at the right-hand of the Father, symbolizing the authority of God, the right-hand of God in Jesus. But here He's standing? Wonder why? I like to think that Jesus is welcoming His child home. "Come on in, son". Because Stephen stood for Jesus on earth, Jesus stood for Stephen in heaven! And Stephen said, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit"! He submitted his will to the will of God. And Jesus welcomed him home. "Well done, son. Thank you for standing up for Me. Thank you for being faithful to My message. Thank you for loving Me and honoring Me with your life. And now come and enjoy eternity with Me".
He lived, he died like he lived: in Christ. And his hope turned to sight. Back on earth that young man, Saul of Tarsus, was forever changed by what happened that day. It's noted there that they threw these garments, their coats at the feet of Saul of Tarsus, that he was there. He was already involved in persecuting Christians and trying to stamp out the fires of the Gospel and of the church, and for a few more months he would continue in this like a junkyard dog, killing Christians and imprisoning them where he would find them. But something happened in Saul's life that day, and when he was on his way on the Damascus road to capture Christians, he met the living, resurrected Lord, and Jesus said to him, Acts 9:4-5 "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It's hard for you, isn't it, to kick against the goads".
He was under conviction, and I believe it started when he saw this godly deacon die, and echoing in his soul that day that he met Jesus was the testimony of this godly man, the influence of this man who lived and died in faith. And Saul of Tarsus was converted and became Paul, the greatest missionary the world has ever seen. This was, in fact, the tipping point of the Christian faith, as the church now spreads out from Jerusalem under the fires of persecution into Judea, Samaria, to the ends of the earth. God took the death of Stephen and drove out His people with the message of Christ! It's the only message to live by and the only one to die by. And Stephen is a beautiful example of character and courage and commitment to Christ. And may God give us that same strength and the same spirit of life and liberty that we see in him.