Dying to Live (Acts 7:55-60)
When I was a kid, I couldn’t wait to grow up, be an adult, and live life the way I wanted. Boy, has that ever turned out to be a disappointment! I lost a job that I absolutely loved. My health leaves much to be desired. There are days that I can barely move my legs at all. Climbing stairs is quickly becoming a thing of the past. There are days that the pain is almost unbearable. Swimming and medication help greatly, but neither can totally eradicate the pain. The only time I ever really feel good is when I’m swimming, so I try to swim as long and as often as possible.
I’m quite confident that I’m not the only one who has ever wished to go back in time and be a little kid again. Maybe it was as you were leaving the cemetery where you had just buried the dearest in all the world to you. Maybe it was as you were leaving the unemployment office as you wondered how you were going to feed your little kids. Maybe it was as you cried yourself to sleep over some word that had pierced your very soul. Maybe it was when you realized that your marriage was beyond the point of repair. You’ve had some hard times in life. . . I’ve had some hard times in life. . . It’s just the way it is.
What do you do when life is turned upside down? In this morning’s text we find that Stephen’s world is being turned upside down. Well, that’s not entirely accurate. . . His world is ending. . . You might say that Stephen was having a bad day.
But, you know that’s not true. . . Stephen was having the best of days. You see, Stephen was Dying to Live. On January 1, 2010, a dear man of God left this world quite unexpectedly. While Don was in a surgery that was a last-ditch effort to save his life, I told his soon-to-be widow, “Don’s getting ready to live. We don’t even know what life is this side of eternity.” I believe that is the truth of God: “Whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die” (Jn 11:26). Bodies die. Souls live.
We see that in Stephen’s martyrdom. Stephen, as he prepares die as the first Christian martyr, is permitted to gaze into heaven and to see the glory of God. As Stephen is dying, God allows him to know beyond any doubt: “Glory awaits the faithful.”
Scripture (Acts 7:55-60)
Stephen was full of the Holy Spirit. One of the requirements of the first seven deacons was that each one be “full of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 6:3). Because the Spirit was miraculously with Stephen, he was able to see this vision of heaven.
Stephen is able to see the glory of God–what a brilliantly bright sight that must have been!
Stephen sees Jesus standing at the right hand of God. This is the only time in Scripture that Jesus is depicted as standing at God’s right hand. There are many ideas about why Jesus is depicted as standing here. I think there are a few ideas that have a great deal of merit. Standing is a sign of respect. I do think that part of this is that Jesus is showing respect to the first Christian martyr. Judges in this day stood when they rendered a verdict. Stephen is in the process of being judged by the Sanhedrin. Jesus stands in judgment, not upon Stephen, but upon the Sanhedrin. It is also possible that Jesus is standing as Stephen’s Advocate to plead his cause before the Father.
Jews in the days of Stephen believed that no one had the authority to be at God’s right hand.
Therefore, they act as they do. They cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears–they sought, in a rather immature way, to hear no more of what Stephen had to say. They ran at him with one accord–They act as a mob determined to take care of Stephen.
They cast Stephen out of the city and stoned him. Under Jewish law, a condemned criminal would be taken outside the city. He would be thrown over a drop at least twice his height. The witnesses of his crime would be the first to throw stones. They would aim for his chest, but precision wasn’t all that possible. They would keep up this process until the person was dead.
Before they stoned someone, the Jews would strip him of his clothing, an exercise of a final humiliation. Luke, however, doesn’t record that the Sanhedrin stripped Stephen of his clothing; they may have, but it’s not recorded.
Luke records that the Sanhedrin took off their clothes. They probably took off their outer garments because it was hot. But, I think Luke records their taking off their clothes to say that they are really the guilty ones–they are the ones upon whom judgment will ultimately come.
Stephen dies in much the same way Jesus did, and, as I’ve said before, I think Luke intentionally draws parallels between Jesus and Stephen.
Stephen was stoned as he was calling on God. Peter had said that whoever called on the name of the Lord would be saved (Acts 2:21). But, Stephen dies as he called upon God; what’s up with that? Obviously, I think Peter speaks of calling on the name of the Lord in a different way back in Acts 2. But, Stephen does get salvation here in a big way; the implication is quite clear in this text: God takes Stephen to Paradise.
Stephen fell asleep. Is not that a beautiful word to describe Stephen’s violent death? Of course, “sleep” is a common Christian euphemism for death. But, I don’t think Luke is simply attempting to describe death euphemistically. I really do think he’s trying to draw a contrast between the violence of Stephen’s murder and the peaceful way that Stephen died. Instead of attempting retaliation, Stephen’s body simply went to sleep.
“Glory awaits the faithful.” In the midst of all the suffering you and I must do in this world, we can take comfort in knowing that “Glory awaits the faithful.” But, how does that help me when I’m in the midst of a daily struggle of suffering? Stephen is able to do four things which allow him to die so peacefully. We want to see how we can do the four things Stephen does.
One: You must STAND on truth.
Stephen has stood on truth and for truth, and, you understand, it’s because of that truth that he loses his life in this passage. Throughout his speech in Acts 7, Stephen proclaims the truth of the Old Testament. It becomes very uncomfortable for the Sanhedrin as Stephen applies that truth to their situation.
Stephen had a firm grasp of Scripture. Granted, that firm grasp of Scripture caused Stephen’s death in this text. Yet, a firm grasp of Scripture can help us through difficult times. That is true because of what the psalmist declared: “Your word is a lamp to my feet And a light to my path” (Ps 119:105). Through a firm grasp of Scripture, we can find comfort in difficult times. “My help comes from the LORD, Who made heaven and earth” (Ps 121:2). “If God is for us, who can be against us?” (Rom 8:31). Hebrews 13:5b-6.
Do you have a firm grasp of Scripture? Do you know the promises of God? Spend some time in Scripture learning the great promises of God. Get a concordance or a Thompson Chain Reference Bible (you can find both of those online these days). Find the promises of God you need to know–Do you need to know about His protection over sin or death or loneliness? Write those verses somewhere you can easily access them–write them in the front of your Bible, tape them to your mirror, or somewhere else you can easily access them.
If you’re to remain faithful in a hostile world, you must STAND on truth!
Two: You must SEE Jesus.
Stephen saw Jesus as he was about to die. Can you even begin to fathom how much a comfort that would have been to Stephen, to be able to gaze into heaven and see the glory of God and Jesus standing at God’s right hand? If we want comfort when we are suffering, we must SEE Jesus.
You know that while we are in the flesh, we won’t see Jesus with these eyes of flesh. I firmly believe we’ll see Him when we lay aside this flesh. Paul wanted to be with the Lord: “My desire is to depart and be with Christ” (Phil 1:23). What a glorious day when we lay aside this flesh and are with the Lord!
You understand that we can go to Scripture and through the inspired Word we can SEE Jesus. There are a couple things we see as we explore Jesus’ suffering:
- We see His example in suffering. “To this you were called, because Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps” (1 Pet 2:21). When life doesn’t go our way, we can go to the cross and understand that we’re not facing anything like Jesus faced on our behalf. I find great comfort in knowing that my life has never been so horrible that I was suspended between heaven and earth with all the world’s sins on me.
- We see His glory after suffering. After Jesus suffered for our sins, He received great glory from the Father: “When [Jesus] had by Himself purged our sins, [He] sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Heb 1:3). Great glory awaits us after the suffering of this world: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us” (Rom 8:18). See Jesus, see His glory, and see the glory that will one day be yours.
Three: You must SHOW MERCY.
Stephen shows great mercy. He forgives those who are stoning him; he prays that the Lord not charge them with their sin. To be blunt: If you were dying, could you offer forgiveness with one of your final breaths?
We’ve recently talked about forgiveness, and I don’t want to repeat anything we’ve said. But, is there someone you need to forgive? Notice that Stephen takes his need to forgive to Jesus in prayer. What better place to take the need to forgive? If there is someone who has committed a great sin against you, take it to the Lord Jesus in prayer.
Four: You must SUPPLICATE.
Stephen prays twice in this text, and both prayers are addressed to Jesus. It’s important that both of these prayers are addressed to Jesus. That declares that Jesus is Lord.
Yet, notice the first Christian martyr is praying in the midst of his suffering. Why would Stephen pray as he’s dying? He knows that he has nowhere else to turn. He knows that Jesus can help. He knows he’ll be with the Lord shortly.
Why should we pray in the midst of our suffering?
- We have nowhere else to turn. Paul experienced the reality of no one on earth to help: “At my first defense no one stood with me, but all forsook me” (2 Tim 4:16). You know that reality very well in your own life.
- We have a great helper in Jesus. Jesus says, “If you ask anything in My name, I will do it” (Jn 14:14). Why not take hold of the great power of prayer?
- We will be with the Lord shortly. No matter how we slice it, our time on this earth is but a moment: Your life “is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away” (Js 4:14).
Are you ready to be with the Lord even now? Stephen was “Dying to Live.” He laid aside this garment of flesh and was clothed with life in the Paradise of God. What if you were to leave this world today? Would you be with the Lord?
This sermon was originally preached by Dr. Justin Imel, Sr., at the Dale Ridge church of Christ in Roanoke, Virginia.