So far in the book of Acts, we’ve seen this powerful movement of the Holy Spirit at work and thousands are flocking to join the Church.
One of the men who was a part of this movement was named Stephen, who helped oversee food distributions for widows.
Luke – the author of Acts - describes him as “a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit.” And remember, when we talk about the Holy Spirit, I think it’s helpful to think of it as God’s powerful, restoring presence within us. Stephen had that.
Well, in the story we’re looking at today, Stephen becomes the first martyr in the church - the first person to die for his faith in Christ.
His death becomes a turning point in the story of the early Church, because from this point on, persecution and violence against believers starts to ramp up and this movement of Jesus-followers gets scattered across the world.
Today I want us to look at the story of Stephen’s martyrdom, not just because it’s a turning point for the Church, but because it tells us some really important things about what it means to follow Jesus.
Turn with me to Acts 6:8 and let’s take a look at what happened.
Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, performed amazing miracles and signs among the people. But one day some men from the Synagogue of Freed Slaves, as it was called, started to debate with him. They were Jews from Cyrene, Alexandria, Cilicia, and the province of Asia. None of them could stand against the wisdom and the Spirit with which Stephen spoke.
So they persuaded some men to lie about Stephen, saying, “We heard him blaspheme Moses, and even God.” This roused the people, the elders, and the teachers of religious law. So they arrested Stephen and brought him before the high council.
The lying witnesses said, “This man is always speaking against the holy Temple and against the law of Moses. We have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy the Temple and change the customs Moses handed down to us.”
At this point everyone in the high council stared at Stephen, because his face became as bright as an angel’s.
So, Stephen is accused of (v.13) “speaking against the law of Moses.”
What do they mean by this?
Well, the law of Moses was a set of instructions God gave the ancient Israelites. It was a way of living that would bring God’s blessing into this world. A lifestyle of justice, of mercy, of abundance - of selflessness. A way to return to Eden.
But as we see in the story of the Bible, the people of Israel miss the point of the law over and over again. Either they outright break it - spreading injustice and hatred - or as these religious leaders had done, they turn it into a legalistic code of behavior.
They focus in on the minutiae of specific regulations while missing the bigger purpose. They turn obeying the law into a form of oppression instead of a source of blessing.
It’s the reason they crucified Jesus. Even though he was God’s good intentions for the world personified – even though he fulfilled the law perfectly, all these religious leaders saw in him was blasphemy and disobedience because he didn’t do it the way they expected.
They missed the point of the law – to bring life and freedom, not oppression.
Well now, in Acts, God’s Holy Spirit - his powerful, restoring presence - is within Jesus’ followers. In essence they all now had the law of Moses - God’s intentions for the world - written on their hearts.
And Stephen lives that out. He’s bringing healing and life and blessing into the world. He’s performing amazing signs and miracles through God’s Spirit.
He was a part of this movement causing everyone to experience awe. Because they were seeing an Eden kind of life springing up right before their eyes. That’s what it means to live out God’s Torah - his law - his intentions.
And look at verse 15. It says Stephen’s face became as bright as an angel’s. Whether this is literal or just an expression, the point is clear. God’s radiant presence is flowing out of him.
But just like with Jesus, these leaders accuse him of breaking God’s law because what they cared about were the rules and regulations and they missed the bigger point of God’s love and grace.
What Luke is doing here is setting up a Dichotomy: a contrast between two opposing things.
Stephen is walking a path of love, with the Holy Spirit working through him, while the religious leaders are walking the path of legalism, ultimately standing in the way of God’s purposes.
Luke wants us to understand that there are two, very distinct ways to live. Walking in line with God’s restoring presence in this broken world or standing in the way and adding to the brokenness.
So that’s the dichotomy Luke sets up. In 7:1 Stephen is given a chance to respond. “Are these accusations true?”
To answer this, Stephen begins the longest speech we have recorded in Acts. It’s pretty much all of chapter 7.
This is notable because remember, scrolls were expensive. You don’t just add filler to your story. Every word is important.
Which makes Stephen’s speech kind of odd. Because he is sharing stuff that everyone there would have already been super familiar with. It makes you wonder, “Why are you wasting all this valuable scroll space, Luke?”
Stephen starts by saying, essentially, “There once was a man named Abraham…” Uh, yeah. Obviously.
He tells the story of Joseph and the story of Moses and Mt. Sinai. This is like Bible 101 for his listeners who were, remember, the religious leaders of Israel. Why would he tell them stuff they’ve heard over and over since childhood?
And why would Luke keep so much of this speech in his story?
Well, there’s a thread in what Stephen says that’s important to pay attention to.
When he talks about Joseph, for example, he also mentions Joseph’s brothers, who worked against Joseph even though he was God’s chosen servant.
When Stephen brings up Moses, he also talks about the Israelites who rejected Moses and didn’t believe he was God’s representative.
When he talks about the giving of the law, he also brings up the Israelites who ignored the law and chose to worship other gods.
What you see in Stephen’s speech is the same dichotomy that Luke is highlighting in Acts as a whole. It’s like a meta-story.
The dichotomy in Stephen’s speech is the dichotomy in this whole ordeal: Those who are faithfully living out God’s intentions (like Stephen) vs. those who are completely missing the point and standing in the way of God’s intentions.
I know it seems simple and obvious, but Luke wants us to see this so I want to make sure we pay attention to it.
THE STONING OF STEPHEN
After setting all of this up dichotomy as a pattern from the very beginning of his speech, Stephen reaches his conclusion….
“You stubborn people! You are heathen at heart and deaf to the truth. Must you forever resist the Holy Spirit? That’s what your ancestors did, and so do you! Name one prophet your ancestors didn’t persecute! They even killed the ones who predicted the coming of the Righteous One—the Messiah whom you betrayed and murdered. You deliberately disobeyed God’s law, even though you received it from the hands of angels.”
The Jewish leaders were infuriated by Stephen’s accusation, and they shook their fists at him in rage. But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed steadily into heaven and saw the glory of God, and he saw Jesus standing in the place of honor at God’s right hand. And he told them, “Look, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing in the place of honor at God’s right hand!”
Then they put their hands over their ears and began shouting. They rushed at him and dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. His accusers took off their coats and laid them at the feet of a young man named Saul.
As they stoned him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” He fell to his knees, shouting, “Lord, don’t charge them with this sin!” And with that, he died.
Saul was one of the witnesses, and he agreed completely with the killing of Stephen.
Stephen is killed because he turns the tables on the religious leaders. They started by accusing him of speaking against the law, but now he was accusing them of the same thing…
Verse 53. “You deliberately disobeyed God’s law…”
If I could paraphrase, it’s like he’s saying, “You are just like the brothers who rejected Joseph. You’re just like the Israelites who rejected Moses. You’re just like our ancestors who rejected the law. When you killed Jesus, you rejected the righteous one of God.”
“You murdered the one person who was closest to God’s heart. The one who could actually stand in authority at God’s right hand. You thought you were defending God’s law, but you were breaking it.”
And as if to put an exclamation point on this fact, the religious leaders do it again.
They pull Stephen out into the street and throw heavy stones at him until he is dead. This isn’t some legal proceeding. Some court-ordered execution. This is a lynching. Extrajudicial murder.
Of a man who moments before had a face like an angel. Who was doing miraculous signs and healing God’s people. These religious leaders had once again missed God’s heart for the world.
And this is important: Luke goes out of his way to draw parallels between the death of Stephen and the death of Jesus. False accusations, an innocent victim, the religious leaders, a sham trial… even their last words.
After he was nailed to the cross, Jesus prayed,
“Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”
And here, right before he dies, Stephen says, “Lord, don’t charge them with this sin!”
Jesus taught his followers to love their enemies, and Stephen was doing that even in death.
These religious leaders throwing the stones and murdering this righteous man were the ones with all the power in that moment, yet they were the ones farthest away from the God they claimed to follow.
Stephen was living into the blessing of God's loving presence. These others were living into the curse.
It’s the dichotomy of trusting the God of love or standing in his way.
Stephen was the first of many to give up their lives for Jesus. And in all the ancient records we see a common pattern.
These martyrs were filled with peace and joy, even as they died. Why? Because they had chosen the path of surrender to God’s intentions for the world - the path of love and life.
No matter what happened to them, these martyrs like Stephen, died full of the love of God and confident that the path of love did not end in death.
YOU HAVE A CHOICE
So that’s the story of the stoning of Stephen. The first martyr.
Really it’s the story of the dichotomy of the two paths. Living out God’s loving purposes or standing in his way.
Now, when we see this story recorded in Acts, it may seem like it’s just here to be a record who got it right and who got it wrong. It may seem like the die is cast. There’s good guys and bad guys.
But I don’t believe that’s what this story is here to tell us. No, because of one vital detail in verse 1 of chapter 8.
It’s the presence of Saul in this story. Saul was one of these zealous religious leaders who was totally missing the point of God’s purposes.
He was the young man guarding everyone's coats in v.58 while the older men stoned Stephen to death. And Luke says Saul "agreed completely with the killing of Stephen."
The die was cast for Saul. In the dichotomy of Stephen's speech - those walking in faith and those standing against God's purposes - Saul had already chosen sides. Stephen’s blood was on his hands.
And yet, we know what happens next.
This will be the focus of my message next week, but put simply, Saul has an encounter with the risen Jesus, turns from his misguided ways, and becomes one of the most influential apostles of the early Church.
We know him better as Paul: church planter, missionary, and the author of a huge chunk of our New Testament.
I tell you all this because looking at Stephen's story it may seem like there are these clearly defined lines between those who are in God's favor and those who are out. The dichotomy is clear. And that’s true.
But you know what’s even more true? God’s grace. His forgiveness.
What’s true is that there is always a choice. Our God’s offer of blessing - of life (which Stephen experienced!) is always there for us to live into.
Jesus didn’t die for those already on the right path. He died for everyone and invites all of us to walk the path of life with him no matter what we’ve done.
The die was not cast for these religious leaders. At least one of them changed the path he was on.
Stephen had made his choice. He was willing to die for what he believed in.
But so did Saul. This judgmental young pharisee went on to not only dedicate his life to God’s purposes, but tradition tells us that he too was ultimately put to death for his faith. He died a martyr.
That’s why I think the big idea from this story is that yes, there are two paths we can walk, but all of us can make the choice to change.
There is always a choice.
MAKE YOUR CHOICE!
So here’s what I want to ask you today. Have you made your choice?
Now, I know when you hear this story it’s easy to think, “Sure. I’m not one of the people who would murder a godly, angel-faced man.”
But remember, the dichotomy is not just about the religious leaders and Stephen.
Think about his whole speech. The dichotomy is between those whose lives are an outflow of God’s intentions for the world and those who are standing in God’s way.
Those whose lives resemble the self-giving love of Jesus, and those who are in it for themselves.
Those who trust God enough to go where he sends them, and those who want to be the masters of their own destiny.
Those who are free of the enslaving power of sin, and those who are still in chains.
Have you made your choice?
Because if you have you know that God’s restoring presence is within you.
You are being transformed day by day to look more like Jesus. Little bits of Eden are springing up around you. Just like Stephen, love is taking root and lives are being healed and your world looks more like God intended it to be.
It doesn’t mean things are perfect. This is still a broken world. But if you’ve made your choice then you are on the path of life and that path does not end when your heart stops beating.
Have you made your choice? Are you living in the freedom of God’s grace? Are you experiencing healing around you and in you? Are you tasting the power of the Holy Spirit?
Because if you haven’t made this choice - to surrender your life to Jesus… Now is the time.
Or if you have drifted off the path of life and back onto the path of self. If you look around and realize you’re breaking your world, not healing it... It’s time to get back on track.
This isn’t about religious legalism or “doing more Christian stuff” or not swearing.
No! This isn’t about rule-following. That was the exact mistake the religious leaders who killed Stephen were making. This is about whole-life surrender.
This is about giving over the controls of your life to the God of restoration and healing.
This is about saying, “I am done trying to be the master of my own universe.
I am done trying to self-medicate away all the pain.
I am done throwing my life on the gears of success and power.
I’m done going through the religious motions as if it will earn God’s favor.”
“I am ready to surrender all of it. Because I believe that the way of Jesus Christ is the way of life. Jesus, my life is yours.”
There is always a choice to walk the path of life. Will you make it?