The Blood of Thy Martyr Stephen
July 10th, 1977 @ 7:30 PM
THE BLOOD OF THY MARTYR STEPHEN
Dr. W. A. Criswell
7-10-77 7:30 p.m.
On the radio, KRLD, the great, clear, channel station of the Southwest, and on KCBI, you are sharing the service of the First Baptist Church in Dallas. This is the pastor bringing the message entitled The Blood of Thy Martyr Stephen.
Turn in your Bible to the Book of Acts chapter 7, the Book of Acts chapter 7; this morning we left off at the latter part of that chapter. The sermon this morning was entitled The Apologia, The Defense of Stephen; his defense of the gospel of the grace of the Son of God. Tonight we are going to pick up where we left off at the morning service, and we are going to preach about the martyrdom of this first man who laid down his life for the faith. Now having turned to the seventh chapter of Acts, we begin reading at verse 51; and reading it out loud, we read to the end of the chapter. Acts chapter 7, beginning at verse 51, now all of us together:
Ye stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Ghost: as your fathers did, so do ye.
Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted? and they have slain them which showed before of the coming of the Just One; of whom ye have been now the betrayers and murderers:
Who have received the law by the disposition of angels, and have not kept it.
When they heard these things, they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed on him with their teeth.
But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up steadfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God,
And said, Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing on the right hand of God.
Then they cried out with a loud voice, and stopped their ears, and ran upon him with one accord,
And cast him out of the city, and stoned him: and the witnesses laid down their clothes at a young man’s feet, whose name was Saul.
And they stoned Stephen, calling upon God, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.
And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep.
How beautiful was the providence that gave him the name of Stephanos; Greek word for "garland" or "crown." And this layman, this deacon, was the first one to receive from the hands of our Savior the martyr’s crown.
First, he testified as a Christian ought to testify: fearlessly, boldly, courageously, unflinchingly. This Sanhedrin and all of the leaders of the temple worship, scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, officers, leaders of the Jewish religion, he addressed himself to a subject that of all things in their minds was obnoxious and opprobrious. He was speaking in his defense of the temporary character of all Jewish worship. To them, to the Jewish people, the Levitical law, the Mosaic legislation was forever. To them that temple would stand there until the end of the ages. It was the place in all the world that God had chosen for worship [Exodus 15:17; Deuteronomy 12:11; Psalms 132:13]. And the institutions that had been given to them by Moses, to them were eternal and unchanging institutions. And for this man Stephen to stand in the presence of the council and speak of the temporary and intermediate character of all of that Jewish ritual and worship in the temple was to their ears unthinkable blasphemy [Acts 7:46-50]. And not only that, but to add to it that Moses himself was not the final word from God, but that Moses had pointed to Someone who should follow after him, to whom the people were to listen [Acts 7:37], all of it was in the ears of his hearers an accursed thing; it was blasphemous.
Not only did he fearlessly and courageously speak the truth of God in the temporary character of all the Mosaic legislation, and the temporary house, the temple at Jerusalem, but he confronted them with the same kind of a castigation, condemnation, as John the Baptist did when he was preaching down in the river Jordan. He called those people who came out to listen to his message "a generation of vipers" [Matthew 3:7], warning them to flee from the wrath to come, saying that the ax had already been laid at the root of the tree, and if any man did not repent and find redemption in the coming Messiah that he said was in their midst, they also would be as lost as the heathen. He cast in his preaching the entire race of Israel outside of the covenant of God, saying that God of these stones could raise up children unto Abraham, and that they must repent, turn, get right with God, confess their sins, or they had no part in the kingdom [Matthew 3:2, 7-11]. That was an astonishing doctrine to the Jew in that day, as it is an astonishing doctrine to the Jew of today.
I listened to a learned rabbi in New York City, who said, "The great difference between the Jew and the Christian is this: to us there is no need of salvation, by virtue that we are the children of Abraham we are saved; there is no such thing as having to be saved." But the preaching of John the Baptist, and the whole group of men who followed after him, was this: that we all are sinners alike, Jew and Gentile, bond and free, male and female; and we must repent of our sins [Mark 1:4; Romans 3:9, 23], and find forgiveness in Christ Jesus [John 1:29; Acts 3:18-19]. That was the preaching of John the Baptist. That was the preaching of Jesus Himself [John 3:36]. And to these very people, in the twenty-third chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, He called them, "whited sepulchers" [Matthew 23:27], men who encompassed heaven and earth, to make one convert, and when they do, he is more a child of Hades, of damnation, than he was before [Matthew 23:15]. These are the men to whom Stephen addresses his climactic word:
Ye stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Spirit: as your fathers did, so are you doing. Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted? And they have slain Him of whom Moses spoke; you are now the betrayers and murderers of the Son of God: you who have received the law by the disposition of angels, and have not kept it.
Those are awesome words of condemnation and judgment. Should a man speak like that? Should a Christian tell the truth like that? You see, the reason that it is startling to us is, we don’t do that. There is not that fearless courage in us today to stand before a sinful, and gainsaying, and Christ-rejecting world. We mollify our witness, and we extenuate our apology, and we compromise with the evil in the world. It is a rare man who will stand up and deliver a message at a cost, to say the truth at a price. It is so much easier for us to say sweet words, and mollifying words, and complimentary words, and compromising words, rather than oppose evil, and unbelief, and rejection, and sin, and wrong, and iniquity. Oh!
The Lord said, "Woe unto you, when all men speak well of you!" [Luke 6:26]. When everybody has a tendency to praise you, "Woe unto you!" The reason they do that is because you are not opposing their sin. You are not standing up for what is right, and you are not presenting the truth of God as it is in Christ Jesus. Why, I would think the most unusual witness that we’d find in our modern world would be a man to stand up and say, "If you don’t believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, in the forgiveness of your sins, and if you do not repent and turn to Him, you forever will be damned in hell." Who says that? Yet the Bible witnesses to that eternal truth from the beginning of the first verse in the Book of Matthew, to the end of the benedictory prayer in the Revelation; that outside of Christ there is no other salvation [Acts 4:12], that outside of Him there is no entrance into heaven, that He alone is the way, and the truth, and the life [John 14:6]. There’s no other way by which a man can come to God except through the Lord Jesus Christ [John 14:6]. But that note of courageous preaching of the gospel of Christ is almost alien and foreign and unheard. But that was Stephen: he testified as a Christian ought to testify; boldly and courageously and unflinchingly [Acts 7].
I often think how it characterizes the modern pulpit to be soft, and amenable, and malleable, and compromising. I one time heard one of the craziest things: they were having a great service in the church, and there many, many, many visitors present. And a deacon was back there with the pastor, just before the service began. And the deacon cracked open the door just a little bit, so he could see who was seated out there. So he looked over the congregation, and he said, "Well, I see some Presbyterians here. Don’t say anything about the Presbyterians." And he looked, and he said, "I see some Methodists out there. Don’t see anything about the Methodists." Then he looked and he said, "I see a few Catholics out there. Don’t say anything about the Catholics." Then he scanned the audience very carefully and said, "I don’t see a Mormon. Preacher, give ’em fits. Let ’em have it."
Ah! What an insult to the truth of Almighty God that we shape our message according to the response of the people who might be present to listen. That was not Stephen. He testified as a Christian ought to testify: truthfully, courageously, unflinchingly, boldly [Acts 7]. God bless that man anywhere in the earth who, without thought of the persons of those who are listening, declares the whole truth and the whole counsel of God; that is Stephen.
Second, he died as a Christian ought to die: with a vision of heaven in his heart [Acts 7:55-56]. He was executed according to Jewish custom. They deliberately planned the execution of the Lord Jesus, because they took it to the Roman procurator [Matthew 27:1-2]; they never had the power of capital punishment, the Roman government had taken it out, taken it out of Judeans’ hands. This was something that in anger they took in their own hands, and they never bothered to say anything one way or another to the officers of the Roman legions, much less to the Roman procurator Pontius Pilate [Acts 6:12, 7:57-58]. This was something they did out of the bitterness of their hearts.
Now, a Jewish execution went like this. First, before the culprit there went the witnesses. And they proclaimed aloud, they cried aloud, the crime of the victim. In the case of Stephen it was this: "He hath blasphemed this holy place" [Acts 7:13-14], and again, "He has cursed God," and again, "He has defamed Moses" [Acts 6:11-12]. Do you remember the execution of Naboth; when Jezebel suborned witnesses, and they came together and cried in the city of Jezreel, "Naboth has blasphemed God, Naboth hath cursed God"? And upon those suborned witness and their testimony, they stoned Naboth to death [1 Kings 21:5-13].
It was an exact thing as you find here: the witnesses go in front of the criminal, and they cry aloud his crime [Acts 6:10-11]. They took him out of, and what in Jerusalem is there today, St. Stephen’s Gate, that leads on the east side, down to the rocky bed of the Kidron Valley. And, after they come to the place of execution, the two main witnesses take the victim, and hurl him down violently from a height at least twelve feet. Then they cast two great stones upon him, at which they pause for the culprit to confess his sin unto God. Then the multitudes pick up the rocks and stone the criminal. They pause for him once more to have opportunity to confess his crime to God before he dies. Then they dispatch him summarily, with heavy hurled, cast stones; thus it was with Stephen, and you can follow the outline of that execution exactly here.
First, he is standing before the Sanhedrin. And suddenly, as Stephen stands before the council, and all the officers and guard, and leaders of the temple, and of the people, suddenly all of the temple – its sturdiness, its tremendous structure, and the Levites, and the priests, and the scribes, and the leaders – all fade away as a part of this material world. And looking up into heaven, he sees it open wide, rolled back like a scroll; and there at the throne of glory, stands the Lord Jesus Christ. "Behold!" He cried, "I see the heavens opened, and the glory of God and the Son of Man standing on the right hand of the Majesty on High" [Acts 7:55-56]. What a glorious vision; when this world fades away, and there before him is the exalted and living Lord!
Then they seize him, and casting him out of the city, down to the Kidron on the east side, those witnesses go before saying, "He has defamed Moses. He has cursed God. He has blasphemed this holy place." And they come, and then it says, "And the witnesses laid down their raiment at a young man’s feet, whose name was Saul" [Acts 7:57-58]; they are girding themselves to lift up Stephen and to hurl him down from the height, and then to cast the two great stones upon him. And as they did that, they pause for his confession before God, and this was his confession. And they stoned Stephen as he called upon God, saying, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit" [Acts 7:59]. Then the multitude picked up stones, and they cast them and hurled them against him, beat down now to his knees. He looked up and saw their murderous faces; and knowing that he soon would die, he cried this prayer, "Lord, lay not this sin to their charge" [Luke 7:60]. Then the multitude dispatched him summarily with those heavy and jagged stones, and Stephen fell asleep [Acts 7:60].
That’s the Christian way of describing the death of a sainted child of the Lord. We don’t die and they can’t kill us; we fall asleep in Jesus. May I show you how completely that has entered into our language? The Greek word for "to fall asleep" is koimaō and the Greek word for "a sleeping place" is koimeterion. And when you take the Greek word for "sleeping place" and spell it in English language, it comes out "cemetery." A "cemetery" is a Christian word; it is invented by the Christian faith and the Christian message. And we place our sainted dead not in a graveyard; we place them in a koimeterion, a sleeping place. These have fallen asleep in the Lord, awaiting the day when God will raise them up, awaken them [1 Thessalonians 4:14-15]. "And he fell asleep" [Acts 7:60]. Stephen died as a Christian died: with the vision of heaven in his heart [Acts 7:55-56, 60].
And last, Stephen’s life and influence endured as a Christian’s life and influence always endures. It never fails, it never fades, it never falls into uselessness or vanity or futility or frustration; God sees to that. As Hebrews 11:4 says, "He being dead yet speaketh." No word for Christ ever falls to the ground; it has its repercussion in the purposes of God, and no life ever laid down for Christ was ever laid down in vain. God blesses it. Look at this man Stephen. It seems it would look as if; his life was lost, stoned to death. But look what God did with it. Those who were crying the defamation and condemnation of Stephen laid down their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul [Acts 7:58]. This young fellow was from Cilicia; he was in the synagogue disputing with Stephen, and unable to stand before the wisdom, the heavenly unction by which he witnessed to the grace of God in Christ Jesus. He was the one that told Luke every syllable of this long address; it burned like fire in his memory. And he presided over the stoning, the martyrdom of that layman, Stephen.
But a strange thing happened, and it’s a strange psychological turn of mind in human life. When a man is convicted, when he sees a truth that he doesn’t like, he doubly wars against it; it’s doubly hateful to him, it’s doubly bitter to him. And Saul of Tarsus – and we’ll begin that with the eighth chapter – Saul was consenting unto his death [Acts 8:1]. And breathing out threatening and slaughter against the church [Acts 9:1; Galatians 1:13], he haled into prison men and women, he persecuted these Christians unto strange cities" [Acts 26:9-11]. He says "he was exceedingly mad against them" [Acts 26:11]. Why? I can tell you exactly why! When the Lord appeared to him in the way on the road to Damascus, the Lord said to him, "Saul, Saul, it is hard for thee to kick against the pricks" [Acts 9:3-5]. What is that? "It is hard for thee to kick against the pricks." What it was, was this: every time Saul got quiet, every time he got to himself, every time he was alone, just his soul and God, he lived again that day that he presided over the execution of Stephen. He never saw a man die like that man died, with the light of heaven on his face [Acts 6:15]. He never heard a man pray like that man prayed, asking God to forgive those who were stoning him to death [Acts 7:60]. Nor had he ever heard a man speak in the wisdom and unction of heaven as Stephen spoke in the Cilician synagogue [Acts 7:1-53]. And Saul, in the quiet of his life, in the nakedness of his soul, Saul would say, "That’s not true! That’s blasphemy; Jesus is not the Son of God. What he says is falsehood and a lie; that’s not true." And then, his heart would say, "But look at his face and look how he died. And look at the words that he said, and look at the great apology that he delivered from God’s Holy Word. Saul, Saul, Saul." And finally, when the Lord appeared to him, Saul said, "Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?" [Acts 9:6]. And in the twenty-second chapter of the Book of Acts, when Saul is standing before these same people years later, recounting his conversion, he says, "I wanted to go back to Jerusalem, and lay down my life in the place where I executed Stephen, that my blood might stain the same ground that his blood stained" [Acts 22:20]. You see, God never lets a faithful witness fail, fade, fall into futility, fall to the ground. God blesses it and forever, as He did the testimony of Stephen.
"Preacher, do you really believe that?" Dr. Joe Underwood, there is not a missionary under our Foreign Mission Board over which you so largely preside, that has sacrificed for Christ on a foreign field but that God has seen it and watched over it. And there is not a missionary grave but that God has marked the spot. He saw them, and marked that dust, though to us it is how vain and how futile, laying down their lives in a nation like China, or in a nation like Angola. God blesses it ultimately, and finally, and in ways that we never know, never realize.
There was a young fellow that the doctor said to him, "You cannot go. If you go to the mission field, you will immediately die. You cannot go." The young fellow said, "But I’m going." And the doctor said, "Why? You are not physically able to face the hardships of those assignments. You will certainly die. Then why?" And the young fellow said, "Doctor, did you ever see a great ridge over a vast chasm, a broad river?" He said, "The reason the bridge is there, and the reason it stands is because way down hidden in the earth there are great stones that are buried, that nobody sees, nobody knows. They’re the foundation stones upon which the bridge rests." And he said, "I am going to be one of those hidden, buried foundation stones." And he went. And he died, as the doctor said. But God saw it, and God marked the place.
I went to school with a wonderful friend. He was president, later, of our Southern Baptist Convention, and he was telling me about a friend that he had. I didn’t go to the same school that he attended before seminary days. He went to another school. And in that school, he said, "I had a wonderful friend. And he gave his life to be a missionary for Christ, and trained in another nation across the sea, trained in Europe. And then was appointed to the Belgian Congo." And he said, "All during the time that he was training, I heard from him regularly. We wrote letters back and forth. And then his going to the Congo, then," he said, "of a day, no other letters ever came. They just stopped. And I wondered what and why." Then he said, "We learned, as he was going up to his mission station in the Belgian Congo, he contracted a jungle fever, and died before he reached his mission station. And the natives buried him under a great spreading tree on the banks of the Congo River." And he said to me, "When word came back to our school, what had happened to him," he said, "there were more than threescore young men and women volunteered to take his place." And he said, "When word came back to his home church that he had died on the way to his mission station, there were thirteen boys and girls who volunteered to prepare themselves to take his place." God sees to it that any witness, any sacrifice, any word that we ever do, make, offer to God, never falls to the ground. God blesses it and multiplies it and forever.
Ah, Lord, that there might be in us that faithful witness; the Greek word is martyr, that there might be in us that faithful witness to what Jesus means to us; and through us, we pray, to a lost and judgment bound world.
I pray tonight that the message from God’s Book will encourage you to give your heart to the wonderful Savior. This message is come to us at great cost. These have laid down their lives that we might know the truth of the grace of God in Christ Jesus. He Himself, our Lord, died for our sins according to the Scriptures [1 Corinthians 15:3]; raised for our justification [1 Corinthians 15:4; Romans 4:25]; and waits in heaven for our obedience, and love, and worship, and repentance, and faith in Him.
O God, may we not disappoint Thee by not being there when the roll is called. Master, may it be that the sacrifice of the Son of God finds repercussion in my heart, and these who have brought to us the message of the grace of God find in us a willingness to answer with our lives.
Does the Lord speak to you? Does the Holy Spirit invite you? Does God say a word of invitation to you? Make it tonight, that you answer, "Lord, here I am, I’m coming to Thee." Some of you accepting Jesus as Savior, some of you putting your life with us in this dear church; maybe some of you answering God’s call with your life, "The Lord has spoken to me, and I’m on the way. Here I am, Lord, and here I come."
In a moment when we stand to sing our hymn of invitation, on the first note of the first stanza walk down that stairway from the balcony, "I’m coming, Lord; I’m on the way, pastor." In the throng on this lower floor, into that aisle and down to the front, "Here I am, preacher, I’m coming now." On the first note of the first stanza, take that first step. Bring your family with you; your wife and your children, "Pastor, we’re all coming tonight." If it’s a couple you, take her by the hand, "Sweetheart, let’s go." If it’s just one somebody you, answer with your life. When we stand up to sing, stand up answering, walking, coming. Do it now. May angels attend you and God bless you in the way as you come, while we stand and while we sing.
THE BLOOD OF THY MARTYR STEPHEN
Dr. W. A. Criswell
I. He testified as a Christian ought to testify: fearlessly
A. He witnessed to the temporary character of Jewish worship
B. Charged his hearers with spirit of resistance (Matthew 3:7-10, Matthew 23, Acts 7:51-53)
C. Most difficult to proclaim the truth at a cost (Luke 6:26)
II. He died as a Christian ought to die: with a vision of heaven in his heart
A. Jewish execution
1. Cried before the doomed man, proclaiming his crime
2. Stripped of all clothing, thrown from at least 12 feet high by two main witnesses
3. Cast two great stones upon him, pause for culprit to confess
4. Multitudes cast stones; give one more pause for confession before death
B. Stephen’s martyrdom followed that outline (Acts 7:55-60)
1. Falling asleep in Jesus
III. His influence endured as only a Christian’s can – mighty for God
A. It always endures (Hebrews 11:4)
B. Saul of Tarsus (Acts 22)