Acts 7:54-8:4 ‘The Inconvenient Truth’
The Welsh preacher Martyn Lloyd-Jones wrote that ‘anyone who thinks he deserves heaven is not a Christian. But for anyone who knows that he deserves hell there is hope.’
Sadly, we are surrounded by people who assume that they deserve heaven. If you ask them why, they will say, ‘because I am a good person.’ They have not faced their sinfulness and have no idea of the holiness of God.
For them, the gospel has to become bad news before it will be good news.
Loving people may cost you their love
Seven men were chosen to serve the widows of the church. One of them was Stephen. He was an attractive person, being described as being full of grace, full of the Holy Spirit and full of faith. He preformed signs and wonders and spoke about Jesus with wisdom and power.
Some people stirred up trouble for him. The said that he was speaking against Moses and the temple. This is significant because the death sentence was restricted to the decree of the Roman governor, with one exception: the Jewish ruling council (Sanhedrin) was allowed carry out the death sentence in cases where people were found guilty of acting or speaking against the temple. Stephen was brought before the Sanhedrin and addresses the High Priest. As he spoke to them, his face shone like an angel (6:15).
He explains to the High Priest that God does not need the temple. God spoke to Abraham in Mesopotamia, to Moses in Sinai and preformed miracles in Egypt. The Old Testament tells us that God does not dwell in houses made of human hands. The temple had a purpose, but when Jesus died the veil separating the holy place from the holy of holies was torn in two. There is no need to go on pilgrimages to holy sites, because when we know Jesus, we are invited to approach the throne of grace with confidence (Hebrews 4:16). Indeed, our bodies are now temples of the Holy Spirit.
Stephen is very blunt with his listeners. He calls them stiff-necked and claims that they resist the Holy Spirit. He implicated them in the death of God’s promised Messiah. Instead of falling to their knees and asking, ‘what must we do to be saved?’, they reacted with great hostility and gnashed their teeth at him.
The truth is that they are not the only people to resist the Holy Spirit. Paul’s letter to the Romans tells us that the sinful mind is hostile to God (Romans 8:7). The natural human response to the gospel is to oppose it or simply dismiss it. Tell people that Jesus is a great teacher and they might admire him. Speak of his loving nature and they might be fond of him. But explain that our sin is so serious in God’s sight that nothing other than the death of God’s beloved Son could pay its price and they get uncomfortable. Show them that there is no other name under heaven given by which people must be saved and they will call you intolerant.
If we love people, we must tell them the truth. But that does not mean that they will always take this truth well. In fact, loving people with the truth may cost you their love. They may simply say that they no longer want to be friends with people who think they deserve to go to hell.
Ask God for the courage to speak
One of the key verses about sharing your faith in the book of Acts is found in chapter four. There the church was under pressure, they prayed, they were filled with the Holy Spirit and they spoke with Word of God with courage (4:31). Look at the courage of Stephen when he is filled with the Holy Spirit. Look at his love, as he echoes Jesus’ words from the cross, ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them.’
While his enemies look at Stephen with hatred, he looks up to heave and sees the glory of God, and Jesus standing at God’s right hand. Why is Jesus standing (normally he is shown sitting at God’s right hand)? Various suggestions have been made. Part of it may that he is getting ready to welcome Jesus into his presence.
While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus receive my spirit.” Whatever the circumstances of the Christian’s death the comfort is that to be apart from the body is to be at home with the Lord—Jesus’ receives our Spirit. We then will wait for that glorious day when we will receive our resurrection bodies and live for ever in the new heaven and the new earth. Then Stephen falls asleep. It almost seems peaceful.
Don’t forget to get to the good News
The puritan, John Owen wrote, ‘Grace will not seem high until we are brought low.’ He also said, ‘God does not take it well to be limited by us in anything, least of all in his grace’.
Look who was there. Saul, who would later become the apostle Paul, was there giving his approval. He then arranges to persecute the church. Saul has done nothing to deserve the life changing love of Jesus. Think of what Jesus sees as he looks on Stephen dying and Paul smirking. There was nothing in Saul that deserved the love of Jesus. There was nothing in us that deserved the love of Jesus. It is grace from beginning to end. It was an answer to Stephen’s prayer. This chief of sinners would soon be central to the story of Acts.
To finish, just look at the last verse we read. The ordinary folks, like you and me, were scattered, and they brough the good news of Jesus with them wherever they went. This is our great privilege. We warn people of God’s judgement against sin, we ask God to fill us with the Holy Spirit so that we would have the courage to do that, and we point from our sin to Jesus’ cross where Jesus shed his blood to cleanse the worst of us and the worst in us.