Selected highlights from this sermon.
If God is first in our lives, that doesn’t necessarily mean things will go easily for us. Look at Stephen. By God’s will, he did what was right but was still put to death and became the first Christian martyr. But his death was crucial in the life of Saul of Tarsus (later the Apostle Paul), and the condemnation of Israel.
If we know Jesus and we are keeping Him first, we have no reason to fear anything the future may bring. We can even face death with confidence.
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So, what is it like to put God first in your life? The goal of this series of messages, you remember, is to transfer ownership into His hands so that at the end of the day we own nothing. Everything is in His hands, including our future, our entertainment, what we see on the Internet, the way in which we view our relationships. God is first! What a transformation that really does make in our lives! And if God is first, then we really have nothing ultimately to fear because we know that our eternity is secure.
Today I have the delight of preaching on the first martyr, Stephen. I say delight because here’s a man who put God first. He was filled with the Holy Spirit. He was full of boldness. He was brought to the Sanhedrin, the Jewish court, and they were interrogating him, and it says in chapter 6 of the book of Acts, verse 15: “And gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel.” And they could not resist the spirit and the power with which he spoke. Wow!
But we’re going to zero in on his death because you remember after he gave his speech, and we don’t have time to go through the speech, interesting though it is, I do point out in chapter 7, verse 51, and imagine me saying this to the congregation some Sunday. Okay? Just imagine me standing up and saying, “You stiff-necked people with uncircumcised (that is, disobedient) hearts and ears. You are just like your fathers. You have always resisted the Holy Spirit.” Boy, you’d go home and say, “I wonder what Pastor had for breakfast in the morning.”
Well, you can imagine that this did not go over well. In fact, what’s interesting is if you had interviewed the members of the Sanhedrin they’d have said, “Our hearts are fine. It is Stephen’s heart that is wrong.” Nobody likes to have their true hearts revealed. Nobody likes to really be told what is in their hearts, even if it is true. And so the people greatly resisted. Could I say parenthetically today that there could be somebody here who is absolutely convinced that they are right? But you may be wrong about Jesus. And so I urge you to listen to this message and to understand its implications for today, yes, but for all of eternity.
Well, what we’re going to do it to look at the text directly because the question that we want to answer today for someone for whom God is first, somebody who has received Jesus Christ and trusts Jesus Christ as Savior, what does it mean for their future, the fact that their future is in God’s hands? What can they expect?
The reason I find this passage so interesting is perhaps you’ve had the experience of being in a hospital when someone has died—a relative, a friend. Or maybe you’ve come into a home where there was a sudden death. The paramedics come and they take the body away, and you feel so empty, so alone, so grievous. But here’s the question. If a person is a believer in Jesus Christ, what is it that they are seeing? Here we have an opportunity to look behind the curtain.
Now the people who were stoning Stephen couldn’t see into heaven to see what he saw, but it’s one of the few times in the Bible that we actually have the curtain pulled back, and we get a glimpse of what lies on the other side. And what lies on the other side for Stephen—what was there for him—is there for you and for me, too, when we pass behind that curtain, and we arrive on the other side.
So what is it like for a Christian to die, someone whose future is in God’s hands? First of all, I want you to notice that they are welcomed by Jesus. It says in verse 54 that when they heard this they were furious, that is the Sanhedrin and the others, and they gnashed their teeth at him.
By the way, Stephen was full of the Holy Spirit, and they were full of anger. Maybe I should pause here today and ask you, “What is in your heart? What are you filled with? The Spirit, anger, or resentment?” But notice, first of all, we receive the welcome of Jesus. What a lovely passage.
“But Stephen (Acts 7:55), full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.” There he sees the Shekinah Glory. There he sees that cloud that we read about in the Old Testament where God was localized. God is everywhere, but there’s a sense in which He said, “I’m going to let you see a little bit of My glory,” and that also happened on the Mount of Transfiguration when Jesus was there and He suddenly was transformed into blazing, dazzling pure white. And Stephen looks up and he sees the glory of God. And then to the right hand he sees Jesus standing at the right hand of the Father.
Now in order to understand that significance we need a little bit of history. In the Old Testament times, no priest was ever allowed to sit down because that would give the impression that his work was over, so there were no chairs in the temple. There were eight hour shifts and you stood the whole eight hours because no matter how many sacrifices were offered, you were never finished and God wanted to make that point.
It also says now, especially in the book of Hebrews, that when Jesus finished what He did, He ascended into heaven and He sat down. Don’t miss the point. His work was done. “It is finished.” It was all completed—finished, and so He sat down.
About ten times in the New Testament we read that Jesus is seated at the right hand of God, the Father. And now think of how remarkable it is. Stephen is being stoned, and as he looks into heaven he sees the clouds part. He sees the glory of God and he sees Jesus getting up from His chair, and standing at the right hand of God. Can’t you almost hear Jesus saying, “Stephen, be faithful, because in a few moments we’re going to be together. I’m here for you.”
So, you leave the hospital room, and your wife. God bless you, you widows, and you widowers, those of you who have lost a child. You leave the hospital room and there’s that emptiness and that loneliness, and maybe it’s raining outside, and you just think all the world is dreary. I want you to know today that if they are believers in Jesus, they have met Jesus face-to-face. And don’t misunderstand when I say if they had the opportunity to come back to this world, I most assuredly believe that they would say no, not because they don’t love you, but because they are in the presence of Christ who is waiting for them.
D. L. Moody was very fearful of death as a young man. It terrified him, but after he grew in his understanding of the Gospel and his confidence, he no longer feared death, and some of his last words were these words: “Earth is receding, heaven is opening. If this be death, it is glorious.” Wow!
You know, in ancient times before people were sedated with heavy medication, they often saw Jesus and actually reported what they saw. I mean I just want you all to understand that there’s a spirit world out there, and what I’m talking about is not theological terms. I’m talking about reality. I just want you to let that sink into your heart. There’s a spirit world out there where those who are departed in Jesus go to be with Him, and they see what Stephen saw, and it is glorious.
In a previous message, I told you the story about Sandborn—Reverend Sandborn in Iowa, visiting a little girl dying on the couch. And she was there in the twilight between life and death, and she said, “I want to go to heaven but Mamie goes in ahead of me.” And then her head was still on the pillow and then she said, “I want to go to heaven but Gramps is ahead of me.” And then later that morning she died, and he wondered, “Who is Mamie and Gramps?” So he checked it out with the family and discovered that Mamie was a little girl who had moved to New York. Gramps was a man who had moved to the Southwest. And after investigation he discovered that both of them died that same Saturday morning. This is reality—a welcome from Jesus!
Now, of course, let me say that the folks who were listening to what he said were livid. You’ll notice it says in verse 56… Stephen is reporting on what he is seeing. “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” Now the reason that the people became so angry when Stephen said this is because when Jesus was before Pilate in Matthew 26 He said these words: “From now on you shall see the Son of Man at the right hand of power coming in the clouds of glory.” Stephen was, in effect, verifying the very words of Jesus that these Sanhedrin people had heard, and they were angry.
Verse 57: “At this they covered their ears so that they wouldn’t have to listen to this kind of blasphemy, and yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him and dragged him out of the city and began to stone him.”
What happens when God is first and we’ve trusted His Son, Jesus, and our eternity is in His hands? Number one, we are welcomed by Jesus.
Secondly, we are crowned by Jesus. We’re crowned by Jesus! We share the victory of Jesus. You know, in Greek, the word Stephen is Stephanos, and it means crown. Stephen was crowned because the Bible says, “Be faithful unto death and I will give you the crown of life.” In fact, in the Bible there are a number of different crowns. Now, it’s not just medallions on our head. It has to do with spheres of responsibility in the Kingdom, but these crowns are given. For example, there is such a thing as the crown of rejoicing. Paul says, “Who is my crown of rejoicing?” He said, “Isn’t it you at the appearing of Jesus? Who is our crown of rejoicing? Isn’t it people who are in heaven because we had a part in their salvation? Isn’t it true that for some the crown of rejoicing is going to be children in Cabrini Green who were tutored and worked with and helped, or it is our Evangelism Explosion that takes place here Tuesday evening, or it is your own personal witnessing or it is at camp? This is what it is all about. It is about people and they are our “crown of rejoicing,” Paul says.
And then there’s the crown of glory. Listen up, elders of Moody Church, and pastoral staff. The Bible says that if we are faithful as under-shepherds we will receive the crown of glory that does not fade away. And I don’t have time to mention the others although I’ll simply mention them and not comment. The crown of glory! There’s the crown of righteousness given to those who are faithful and look for Jesus Christ’s appearing. There’s also the martyr’s crown that we spoke about here regarding those who are faithful until death. And a crown is given those who endure temptation, and it’s the same crown as those who are martyred for the faith.
There are some of you who are struggling with temptation. It may be sexual temptation and the struggle is so fierce, and the Bible says in James that if you overcome that temptation, you will receive the special crown of life.
Bottom line: It says regarding the saints, “They shall reign with Him forever and ever.” We receive the victory of Jesus. We are crowned by Jesus.
C. S. Lewis said, “Death opens a door out of our little dark room into the great real place where the true Son shines, and where we shall meet. When you weep at a funeral, know who you are weeping for. Weep for yourself and for others, and it’s perfectly legitimate and right to do that because we miss them. But don’t weep for the Christian who has gone to heaven. Oh no, no! Don’t weep for them because they are okay. It’s like Tony Evans says: “I hope you have a good time at my funeral because I’m not going to be there.” (laughter) And I’m not planning to be at mine either as a matter of fact, and you’re not going to be at yours. We’d all like to think that somebody might show up for it, but we’re not going to be there.
There’s a third blessing that is received, the blessing of the welcome. There’s the blessing of the crowning, the victory. There’s also the blessing of receiving the will of Jesus. Now, we don’t have time to go into this today because you’ve heard me speak about this so many times—God’s providence in our death. Was Stephen simply the victim of some evil people who sprang on him, arrested him, and stoned him and dragged him out of the city, killed him and threw his body away (although the body was given to the Christians we learn later)? Is that really the way you read history? No! Stephen belonged to Jesus, and he died within God’s providential will, as we shall see in a moment. Some good came out of his death.
And sometimes God takes people who are older. Sometimes he takes people who are younger. I’m reminded of Jim Elliot who died as a martyr as a young man. He said, “God is peopling heaven. Why should He limit Himself to old people?” I mean if God has people in heaven, if His children are so dear to Him (and it does say “Precious in the sight of the Lord are the death of His saints.”) … If His children are so dear to Him, He takes them sometimes even at young ages.
Now, the Bible says that unless a corn of wheat falls into the ground and die it abides alone, but if it dies it bears fruit. I want you to notice very briefly two effects of Stephen’s death.
For a man by the name of Saul, Stephen’s death meant salvation. Notice what the text says. I’m in verse 58: “And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul,” this young brilliant rabbi, Saul. And the reason that they laid their garments there is because they knew that he could be trusted. They took off the clothes. You know, it’s hard to throw stones when you have a thick robe on, and they gave them to Saul, and Saul, as a result of all of that, became even more angry, and persecuted the church. Eventually he is converted, and he turns into the Apostle Paul. He’s renamed, and years later, just before he died, he said in Acts 22: “I was such a great sinner because I consented to the death of Stephen.”
You know that Paul could never get over Stephen’s death. I think there were two things that haunted him. First of all, Stephen’s face, which was like the face of an angel in the midst of all of these people who hated him! That was the first thing, and then the second thing is look at the way in which Stephen prayed. And he said, “Lord, (I’m now in verse 60) do not hold this sin against them.” That’s the way a true Christian dies.
You say, “Well, did God answer this prayer?” Yes, God answered the prayer for those people whom God intended to save. It was a prayer that was answered in the life of the Apostle Paul and others. It was not a blanket prayer that was applied to everyone, as if God would not hold them accountable, but there were some people for whom the sin was not laid to their charge, and Paul was one. So, on the one hand, Stephen’s death helped Paul to understand the Gospel, and he never forgot it.
There’s another response. For Paul, it was salvation. For the nation of Israel, it was condemnation. Condemnation! You remember Jesus had predicted that not one stone would be left upon another in the Temple, and that’s exactly what happened because in 70 A.D. Titus came and surrounded the city, and the city of Jerusalem was destroyed in the most horrific way with a sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of lives brutally murdered. And Jesus said that that was happening because “you did not know the day of your visitation.”
Stephen’s death was just another nail, so to speak, in this coffin. Isn’t it true that funerals do the same today? You are either drawn closer to Jesus… I’ve seen unsaved people attend a funeral and for that moment there’s an openness there and a willingness to be drawn to Jesus as they weep. But on the other hand there are some people who may weep but their heart only becomes harder. They become angry with God. “God, why did you do this? I can’t figure God out, and if I can’t figure God out I’m not going to trust Him,” And instead of becoming softer to the truth, they actually become harder to the truth.
What are the two lessons we can learn from the death of Stephen? He received the welcome of Jesus. He was crowned by Jesus. And he received the will of Jesus. God’s purpose was accomplished in his life. And we’re talking about making God first.
A year or so ago I read the book by Victor Frankl entitled Man’s Search for Meaning. It’s a book that all of you should read. It is a remarkable book of life in a concentration camp in Nazi Germany. And Frankl as a psychiatrist is trying to look at what happened in his own experience. He tried to figure out why some people survived and why some died. And I can’t go into all the details but he makes the remarkable statement when he says, “He who has a why to live can put up with any how.” In other words, those who had family and friends were the ones who survived because there was a reason to survive. But if a person had no reason to survive he just gave up and died.
Well, I want to take Frankl’s words and interpret them a little differently. And I’m not sure how this is going to come out. I’ve been struggling with how to say this, but I think that it’ll become clear. “He who has his future secure—his eternity secure—can put up with anything in time.”
I don’t care what you are going through today. Well, I do, (chuckles). I do care about what you are going through. I care about what I’m going through, but you know, it’s all going to end okay if you trust Jesus. (applause) The worst that your enemies can do probably is to kill you, and that’s not too bad. That’s not too bad!
Stephen would say, “Hey, man, bring it on. You want me to give you more stones? There are more stones over here,” because the worst thing that can happen is for you to spend your eternity on the wrong side. If you know that Christ is your Savior, death is a glorious entrance. That’s why the Apostle Paul says, “For me to live is Christ (No matter what happens here on earth I’ve got Jesus.) but,” he said, “to die is gain” because then I’ve got Christ.” This is the death of a Christian.
There’s a final lesson and that is that the destiny of all people is settled in this life, not the life to come. Stephen was welcomed into heaven, and Jesus was there to greet him at the right hand of God the Father, and the glory of God, which is the very essence and beauty and purity of God. Jesus was there to welcome him. But you think of all those who die without faith in Jesus, the only qualified Savior, and it is a horrid picture.
I told you a few moments ago that years ago before sedation and medicine people often anticipated and could see behind the curtain even before they died, and they’d make remarks when they slipped from this life to the next. I told you about D. L. Moody, and here we have the example of Stephen. But let me give you only two comments made from those who did not trust Christ as Savior. I am thinking of Voltaire, the great agnostic who wrote against Christianity. His last words were, “I am abandoned by God and man. I shall go to hell.” Isn’t that amazing? Somebody who doesn’t even believe in hell at the moment of death says, “I shall go to hell.”
And then Francis Newport. I won’t give you the whole quote. I’ll recite some of it from memory and then I’ll quote the last line. He said, “Oh, if I could suffer for a million years it would not buy my forgiveness.” Isn’t that amazing that a man like that comes to die and he understands theologically if he could suffer for a million years he could not buy his forgiveness. And he ends by saying, “Oh, eternity, eternity! Oh, the insufferable pangs of hell!” Wow!
So, while on the one side we rejoice on the other side of the curtain for those who have trusted Christ, there is another side of the curtain which is horrific. And it all boils down to what you do with Jesus, the only one qualified to let you into heaven. Everything comes down to this question: “What will you do with Christ?”
Father, thank You today for the hope of all those who have trusted Jesus. Thank You for Stephen. Thank You that he models for us what it’s like when You are first, with his boldness and with his joy and with his anticipation. We thank You, Father, for that and we ask that You will invigorate us with the same blessed Holy Spirit! And for those who have listened who have never trusted Christ as Savior, even in this moment in the quietness of their hearts, may they say, “Jesus, I receive You as mine. Save me.”
Would you say that to Jesus today, by the way? “God, be merciful to me, the sinner,” is the prayer that saves.
Oh, God, grant it today we pray, and teach us to give You our eternal future. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.
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