Acts 7:55-60 may not be the best text to preach or teach in connection with a church ordaining deacons. In fact, after reading it, we may wonder why anyone would volunteer to serve as a deacon. After all, deacons expect needs that outstrip resources, sometimes impatient needy people and the odd bounced check. But death for doing their job well?
It’s easy to forget that the Christian faith, which most of Acts 7’s preachers and teachers are largely free to express and seems to make few demands on us, is both very costly and precious. After all, people not only have died but also continue to die for it.
Acts reports that the early Christian church found that its leaders were neglecting the ministry of feeding Greek Jewish widows. So it chose seven deacons to help ensure that those hungry women were fed. Yet their new work hardly seems like the kind that was likely to get someone killed.
Luke tells us that one of those first deacons is a man named Stephen. While we know very little about his background, his name at least suggests that he comes from the Greek-speaking part of the early church. Acts 6:5 does refer to Stephen as “full of faith and the Holy Spirit.” In verse 8 we read that he’s also “full of God’s grace and power.” What’s more, verse 8 adds that Stephen “did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people.” Yet none of that would seem to make him a likely candidate for martyrdom.
Yet those “wonders and signs” Stephen did probably don’t refer to the amazing things he could do with a leg of lamb and sauté pan or a shrunken benevolence budget. While he doesn’t explicitly say so, Luke at least implies that he’s, instead, doing miraculous things like healing people.
However, while Stephen’s personality seems sweet and his work is helpful, his ministry arouses fierce opposition. Yet when people try to argue with him, they find that they can’t overcome either his wisdom or the power of the Holy Spirit living in him. Just as Jesus had promised, the Spirit has given one of his followers “words and wisdom [that] none of” his “adversaries” are “able to resist or contradict.”
According to Acts 6, religious investigators ask Stephen if he has, in fact, been blaspheming God and slandering Moses. It’s a doubly serious charge. After all, nothing was more sacred or precious to Jews than God’s temple and law. To speak against either was to speak against the Lord.
With his face perhaps glowing like that of Moses or an angel, Stephen gives a speech whose length reflects the importance the book of Acts places on it. He basically tells the authorities, “You’ve got a lot of guts charging me with violating Moses and his law. You should take a good look in the mirror!”
Stephen’s fiery speech seals his doom. He has accused most Jews of being unfaithful to their God. When the authorities respond by snarling at him like wild animals, God pries open the heavenly realm in order to give Stephen a glimpse of it.
The book of Acts often uses such visions to give Jesus’ earthly disciples glimpses of heavenly realities. His vision confirms to Stephen that Jesus is not the blasphemer or criminal many of his contemporaries think he is, but the exalted Lord. His vision also reminds Stephen that the exalted Jesus is the Messianic judge of both his and others’ actions.
Yet the authorities plug their ears and scream to try to drown out Stephen’s words. After all, if he’s right, they’ve made themselves God’s enemies. If Jesus is the Son of Man, the accusers, not the accused Stephen, are the accused.
So the storm that has slowly been building throughout the books of Acts now furiously breaks over Stephen. Any semblance of justice crumbles under the weight of the mob’s fury. The enraged crowd drags Stephen outside the city’s gates where it begins to stone him to death.
However, his executioners are neither local hooligans nor Roman soldiers who nailed Jesus to the cross. These are upstanding members of the religious community who are guardians of the Jewish faith tradition.
Their actions remind those who preach and teach Acts 7 that religious communities are no less vulnerable than any other community to the temptation towards violence. Stephen’s murder challenges preachers, teachers, churches and their members to be very careful about how we handle disagreements.
As Stephen dies, he whispers a prayer modeled after a Jewish child’s bedtime prayer: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Yet just as Jesus prayed for his torturers’ forgiveness, the first Christian martyr also asks God not to hold his death against his murderers. So Stephen never stops sharing his faith in Jesus Christ; he does it even with his dying breath.
And that Jesus brings Stephen comfort even as his life ends so violently. Jesus’ follower dies like Jesus did. Yet Luke tells us that Stephen “falls asleep,” a startlingly beautiful and peaceful description of a brutal death.
So the ordinary people whom the apostles had so recently attracted and amazed have now turned on them. However, at least one of their powerful leaders also lurks in its shadows. After all, before they hurl their stones at Stephen, people lay their clothing at Saul’s feet.
He, however, is no neutral bystander. Saul, reports Acts, gave “approval to his death.” In fact, just after our text ends, Acts reports that Saul begins to try to destroy the church. He launches a house-to-house murderous search for men and women who follow Jesus.
Acts 7 is a violent story. Yet there’s gospel in it. Donald MacLeod was a long-time professor at Princeton Seminary. He loved to tell a story about a young Chinese Christian who fled his home and family because of persecution for his faith.
MacLeod always asked one of his students to open his classes with prayer. One day he asked a Chinese seminarian to do so. The young man stunned everyone by praying, “O God, give us something to die for, for if we do not have something to die for, we have nothing to live for.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer understood that. He was a German pastor, professor and pacifist in the 1930’s and 40’s. Yet Bonhoeffer eventually concluded that it was his Christian duty to participate in the attempt to assassinate Adolf Hitler.
Years before he’d written, “Who stands fast? Only the one whose final standard is not reason, principle, conscience, freedom, virtue, but who is ready to sacrifice all when called to be obedient and faithful in action … in exclusive allegiance to God.”
Acts 7 reminds Christians that we don’t just baptize people into something to die for. We also baptize them into something, in fact, the only thing, that’s really worth living for, the life of being Jesus’ disciple. You and I pray that God will graciously equip them for exclusive allegiance to God.
Yet while some of us are intrigued by the martyrdom to which that may lead, Stephen’s death is not Acts’ primary interest. It, after all, quickly moves on to report that the authorities hunt down and scatter most of the first Christians across Judea and Samaria.
Earlier Jesus had predicted that witnesses would carry the gospel into those places. Yet who would have guessed that persecution would fuel that spread? After all, in the wake of Stephen’s martyrdom, Christian refugees, like dried dandelion seeds that the wind scatters, disperse and take root all across Palestine.
There they bear much fruit, by the power of the Holy Spirit. After all, God is able to use even the persecution of God’s own children to advance God’s good plans and purposes. Not even Satan’s powerful ally Saul can stop that relentless spread of the gospel. In fact, “the blood of the martyrs,” as the church father Tertullian once famously wrote, proves to be “the seed of the Church.”
God calls preachers, teacher and those who listen to us to be prepared to give our lives, especially if clinging to them means abandoning our faith. After all, following Jesus is the only way for any of us to live … and to die.
(Note: I am grateful to William H. Willimon in the Interpretation series commentary on Acts for many ideas here. Acts: John Knox Press, 1988, pp. 64-67.)
Plaques inscribed with the names of three Princeton Theological Seminary graduates greet hungry seminarians as they enter their dining hall: “Walter Macon Lawrie – Thrown overboard by pirates in the China Sea, 1847. John Rogers Peal – Killed with his wife by a mob at Lien Chou, China, 1905. James Joseph Reid – Fatally beaten at Selma, Alabama, March 11, 1965.” It’s enough to make a seminarian lose her appetite, if not look for some safer line of work, like, say, bull-riding.
On Oberlin College’s campus stands a stone arch that’s a memorial to a group of Congregationalist missionaries. It includes the names of thirteen Oberlin grads as well as five of their children who were murdered in the Boxer Rebellion. So maybe we should be surprised that any Oberlin students are Christians.
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 14, 2017
Acts 7:55-60 Commentary