Martyrs for Christ
May 26, 2019

Martyrs for Christ

Acts 6:1-8

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Tomorrow is Memorial Day. Memorial Day is an official holiday in the United States, and while originally it was observed on May 30, the date was changed in 1971 to the last Monday in May. 

You see, in 1968, Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, which established Memorial Day as the last Monday in May in order to create a three-day weekend for federal employees. This change went into effect in 1971. The same law also declared Memorial Day a federal holiday.

This has angered many within the armed forces community, because it has, in essence, changed the whole meaning and purpose of Memorial Day. 

The unfortunate side effect is that now Memorial Day is considered the unofficial start of the summer vacation season, and the sad reality is that far too many people only see it as another day off, a 3-day weekend, and a reason to invite friends to a BBQ and to watch some baseball. 

A week after the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt said, “Those who long enjoy such privileges that we enjoy forget in time that others have died to win them.”

Freedom is never really free; it’s always been bought with the blood of those who died defending it.

Memorial Day should then be a day that is set aside to honor those who died in our Nation’s service. 

Memorial Day was unofficially begun after the Civil War, where the graves of fallen soldiers were decorated with flowers. 

Today, graves of those who died in defense of our country are still decorated with flowers and small American Flags. The most solemn ceremony conducted on Memorial Day is the placing of a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery.

Therefore, as Americans, we should recognize this day as a memorial and honor those who gave their lives to keep America a free nation. This is why we can sit here today praising and worshiping God, which in other countries such freedom doesn’t exist. 

As believers living in America, we are extremely grateful to all those men and women who gave their lives in defense of our country, in defense of our freedoms, especially the freedom of religion, where we can worship the Lord God without fear of persecution and imprisonment. 

We should also be grateful that we are able to live in a country whose foundations were built upon God’s word. 

But there is a corollary, and that is, a greater freedom that was won 2,000 years ago. It was accomplish in and through the death of Jesus Christ, who died upon the cross so that all who believe in Him can be set free from the bondage of sin and death. 

As we prepare to remember those who died for our country, it is even more important to remember the one who died to set us free from sin and death.

“But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8 NKJV)

“For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death.” (Romans 8:2 NKJV)

Why is thisso important for us to remember on this day we pay homage to those who died to keep us free? It’s because without Jesus’s death and resurrection, we wouldn’t be sitting here right now, and those young men and women would never have put their lives in harms way to keep the freedoms we hold so dear, and to which our country was founded. 

They willing gave their lives. And this is where I’d like to take our time together today, and that is, our need to willingly give our lives to what we say we believe in. 

To do this, I’d like to take time and look at the very first Christian martyr, a man who willingly served the Lord, and was willing to die for that belief. 

His name was Stephen. 

Stephen is universally acknowledged as the first Christian martyr, a witness for Christ who went all the way to his death for speaking the gospel message. Stephen wasn’t one of Jesus original disciples, nor was he ever considered as an apostle. 

Yet, he was filled with the Holy Spirit working miracles and boldly proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ to what you might call a very hostile audience, who eventually was able to have Stephen put to death through false testimony of speaking blasphemy. 

But it was Stephen’s death that gave the spark to light the flame of evangelism around the world.

So who exactly was Stephen? 

Now in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplying, there arose a complaint against the Hebrews by the Hellenists, because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution. Then the twelve summoned the multitude of the disciples and said, “It is not desirable that we should leave the word of God and serve tables. Therefore, brethren, seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business; but we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” And the saying pleased the whole multitude. And they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas, a proselyte from Antioch, whom they set before the apostles; and when they had prayed, they laid hands on them. Then the word of God spread, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith. And Stephen, full of faith and power, did great wonders and signs among the people.” (Acts 6:1-8 NKJV)

Stephen’s Character 

From our reading, what we might say is that Stephen was a trusted servant of God within the Church; a very good man who the Bible says held a good reputation with those within the church.

“Seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business.” (Acts 6:3 NKJV)

And while it isn’t specially mentioned here in our text, Paul tells Timothy such men and women should have a good reputation with those outside the faith as well. 

In his first letter to Timothy, Paul said, “Moreover he must have a good testimony among those who are outside, lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.” (1 Timothy 3:7 NKJV)

But that’s not all. Stephen was also full of the Holy Spirit and faith. 

“They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 6:5 NKJV)

What we see from this passageandStephen’s life is that a servant of God, no matter where they may be serving, in front of people or behind the scenes, must have a good character and reputation. There should also be evidence of the Holy Spirit’s indwelling presence. And in all that they do, they need to exercise faith in God and exhibit His grace. 

Now, we first hear of Stephen when he was elected along with six others to administer the daily distribution amongst the poor widows in the Jerusalem church. All seven were chosen on the basis of their character so they could accomplish the task set before them. 

Now, Stephen heads the list, and stands out amongst them because of his faith, and because it was evident to all as to the Holy Spirit’s filling. 

Further, after the apostles laid hands on them and prayed, we really don’t hear anything about the other six, with maybe the exception of Philip, whom many say was the Philip who began to peach the gospel in Samaria that saw a great revival amongst the Samaritans (Acts 8:5). 

But Stephen takes center stage right off the bat, as we are told that Stephen, being full of faith and power, did great wonders and signs amongst the people (Acts 6:8).

As soon as Stephen began being that witness, working signs and wonders, opposition arose, but they couldn’t refute or resist the power and wisdom Stephen revealed, which was nothing less than Holy Spirit power and wisdom. 

Unable to refute Stephen, they reverted to the same tactics the Jewish leaders used against Jesus, and that is they lied about Stephen speaking blasphemy against God, the law and customs of Moses, and against the Temple (Acts 6:13-14). 

Stephen was therefore arrested and brought before the Jewish high council, who then convicted him and had him stoned to death. 

As the first Christian martyr, I’d like to then look at his martyrdom so we can be encouraged as we start to face persecution for our faith, even in America. 

What is a Martyr? 

Martyrs, like Stephen, are those who are prepared to lay down their lives because of their faithfulness to Jesus Christ.

In these days of religious fundamentalism, martyrdom has taken a dangerous turn, as its definition and purpose has changed. We see this in how we refer to martyrs as those who strap explosives to their chests and willingly kill others along with themselves for their religious cause.  

But, the evil they cause is offensive to the true meaning of being a martyr. To cause terror through inhumane acts is not martyrdom. 

A Christian martyr is willing to die for their faith in Jesus Christ and what He stood for, and the freedom He brings. A Christian martyr doesn’t want to take the life of another, but rather to help give true life, a life that only comes through faith in Jesus Christ, and they’re willing to die for that cause. 

To understand what it means to be a martyr, it is important that we look at what and who God considers to be martyrs. 

In the book of Revelation, when the six seal is broken in heaven, John says that he saw “those who had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held” (Revelation 6:9 NKJV).

They died for giving the gospel message. This goes along with the Greek meaning of the word, “martyr.” The Greek word is translated into our word for “witness,” which is what Jesus calls all his followers to be, that is, witnesses to Him to the ends of the earth.

Jesus said to His disciples, “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8 NKJV) 

A witness, or martyr, is a person who speaks for his or her faith in such a way that they may be persecuted or killed for expressing it. But it is not only in our speech, but in the way we live our lives. It is having our faith wide open for the whole world to see. 

Martyrs, therefore, are persecuted and even killed, not only for their convictions, but for expressing their convictions. It is being that witness for Jesus Christ for all to hear and see in our community and in our world. 

God is calling His people to be those witnesses, those prophetic voices, speaking out His truths and standards in a world that increasingly hates us and what we are saying. 

Jesus said, “If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you” … “And you will be hated by all for My name’s sake. But he who endures to the end will be saved.” (John 15:18; Matthew 10:22 NKJV)

There is that old saying that says, “All it takes for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.”

Just as this is true in the general sense as it deals with justice, it is also true in the witness of our faith. We have good news to share about the new life that is available to all through faith in Jesus Christ, and that’s because of Jesus death and resurrection. But, if we remain silent, we withdraw our witness and evil triumphs.

It has been said that the Christian ideal hasn’t been tried and found wanting; rather it hasn’t been tried at all, because it’s been found to be too difficult. 

And so courage is required. Courage to do what is right in the face of evil. To do this we as a church need to find our prophetic biblical voice, and God’s truth. We need to be true to the calling Jesus has placed upon our lives to go make disciples. 

Let me end this portion of our time together saying, “We don’t get in trouble for being silent and shrinking into the background. Rather, we get into trouble for speaking God’s truth into a world that rejects it for Satan’s lie. 

Stephen’s Martyrdom

What can we learn as to the type of witness we’re supposed to be from Stephen’s martyrdom?

Some could say that Stephen died a good death, and that’s because Stephen was prepared and equipped for death by living His life for Christ, or living the Christ-like life to its fullest. 

How then are we to face this life as a Christian given Stephen’s death? 

1. Without Fear

Jesus said that in this life we will have troubles, that is, problems of great magnitude, but not to worry, but rather it is something we can rejoice in, because in the end, Jesus overcame the world (John 16:33). 

And when Jesus said that if the world hated Him, it will hate us as well, what this means is that we will have conflict, persecution, suffering, grief, pain, and a whole lot of stuff that makes us uncomfortable, and stuff we really want nothing to do with. 

However, because of sin we cannot control the troubles that come our way, but we can control how we face these times of difficulty and uncertainty. And that is, without fear. 

The ability not to let fear control our lives is the outcome of a life that is full of the Holy Spirit. It is what Paul tells to Timothy and that which was evident in Stephen’s life. 

“For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.” (2 Timothy 1:7 NKJV)

Look at Stephen’s courageous no fear demeanor. It is seen in how he presented himself as the religious leaders came at him in such an evil and venomous way. 

“And all who sat in the council, looking steadfastly at him, saw his face as the face of an angel.” (Acts 6:15 NKJV)

What I see being presented is that when they looked into his face hoping to see worry, anxiety, and fear, instead they saw serenity and confidence. 

Stephen was prepared to face the hostilities of the world and even death, because He was filled with faith in God and Holy Spirit power. 

And so Stephen was able to face death without fear because he lived His life in the Lord in that same way.

2. Without Bitterness

As a follower of Jesus, Stephen faced death with no bitterness in his heart.

As the stones were being hurled like projectiles towards him, we are told that Stephen response was the same as Jesus’s response to the wrongs and evil done against Him at His trial and execution. 

As he was dying, Stephen didn’t curse and ask God to smite them for this outrage.  

Instead Stephen prayed,  “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” (Acts 7:59 NKJV)

And then he bowed down and with a loud voice said, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin.” (Acts 7:60 NKJV)

If anybody ever had good reason to be bitter and angry over what happened, Stephen certainly did. But, the outrage of being put to death unjustly was not in the heart or mind of Stephen. 

To live this life effectively for the Lord, we have to remove all bitterness that has been buried deep within. We need to be careful not to be bitter about what is or has gone on in our lives, because this has a way of isolating us from the others. 

Instead the Bible tells us to pursue peace with everyone and holiness, and to be careful not to let a root of bitterness spring up and defile us and our relationships (Hebrews 12:15)

Instead, forgiveness is what we should be striving for, because only then can we look evil in the eye and overcome. 

3. Focused on Jesus

Stephen faced death with his eyes focused squarely on Jesus. 

“But he, being full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and said, ‘Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’” (Acts 7:55-56 NKJV)

Even as the stones were hitting him, and even as he was going down, Stephen didn’t look at those who were hurting him, nor did he turn his face downward in despair and hopelessness. Instead he looked upward into the heaven and the face of His Savior and Lord, Jesus Christ. 

The writer of Hebrews tells us that since we’re surrounded by such a great number of witnesses, martyrs of the faith, we are to put aside everything else and look unto Jesus, the author and finisher, or perfecter, or our faith, who had Himself endured the horrors of the cross and who is now at the right hand of the Father in heaven (Hebrews 12:1-2). 

And so, Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God the Father, and Jesus at His right hand. And it was with that vision that Stephen was fully prepared to die.

Conclusion

On this Memorial Day celebration, let’s keep our eyes on the ball, that is, keep our eyes on what is truly important. 

Let’s remember all those who willing gave up their lives so that we can live in freedom. Also, let’s keep our eyes firmly fixed upon Jesus, who likewise willingly died to set us free from sin’s deadly grip. 

Let’s be those Christian witnesses like Stephen, and live our lives without fear, being full of faith and the Holy Spirit, and who are willing to die so that the witness of Jesus Christ could extend to the world. 

Now, you might be wondering why I would say this? It’s because at the trial and death of Stephen was Saul of Tarsus, whom we know as the Apostle Paul, who was actually the first Christian missionary taking the gospel message into the heart of the gentile world. 

Jesus confirmed this saying, “He (Paul)is a chosen vessel of Mine to bear My name before Gentiles, kings, and the children of Israel. For I will show him how many things he must suffer for My name’s sake.” (Acts 9:15-16 NKJV)

This is why I could say earlier that it was Stephen’s death that gave the spark to light the flame that ignited evangelism around the world. 

Therefore, let’s be those witnesses of Jesus Christ without fear, bitterness, and focused upon Christ who willingly died so that all who believe in Him can be eternally set free.









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