Acts 7 And The Trial Of Stephen – What Does The First Christian Martyr Teach Us?

by Bobby Gilles

in Liturgy & Sermons

Artwork of the stoning of Stephen in Acts 7, the first Christian martyrYou can hear my sermon on Acts 6:7-7:60 in the audio player below, or the Sojourn New Albany iTunes podcast (you can also watch the whole worship service on Periscope). You can also read it below:

Or, watch the Facebook Live stream of the whole service, including music (the preaching starts around the 22 minute mark):

Acts 7:51 (Stephen said) “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! 52 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. 53 You deliberately disobeyed God’s law, even though you received it from the hands of angels.”

54 The Jewish leaders were infuriated by Stephen’s accusation, and they shook their fists at him in rage. 55 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. 56 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!”

57 Then they put their hands over their ears and began shouting. They rushed at him 58 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.

59 As they stoned him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 He fell to his knees, shouting, “Lord, don’t charge them with this sin!” And with that, he died.

Wow. This was the dramatic ending of a trial and execution, which occurred just one year after the crucifixion of Jesus. An angry mob has accused a Christian named Stephen of blasphemy against the temple, where they think God lives, and against the ceremonial temple laws.

So the high priest gives Stephen a chance to defend himself. And Stephen does an odd thing. He tells a story—a condensed version of the history of Israel. Then he says, “You’ve misunderstood your entire history. I shouldn’t be on trial; you should.” And as we heard, anger consumed them and they stoned him to death. He never backed down, he never denied his faith, and he even prayed for his attackers as he died.

Now, why does this matter to us, today?

Most likely, no one here in Southern Indiana is going to have to die for their faith. But we experience suffering, temptation, embarrassment, and loss. And even for those of you who do not to share Christ with anyone, at some point someone notices you go to church on Sundays. They make observations about the way you live. They write passive aggressive things about “those Christians” on Facebook.

And sooner or later you think, “I’m on the outside of this circle, and I used to be on the inside. My family knows me as the weird sibling who “got religion.” My old friends have drifted away. My coworkers stop joking around when I enter the room. I asked my neighbor to church once and she said Christianity is for weak-minded people.”

Maybe for some of us, the hesitation to share our faith goes even deeper than that. Maybe you learned not to trust, not to “put yourself out there,” in the first years of your life. Maybe those closest to you were constantly unavailable, and so you learned that you couldn’t trust others. And to this day, it’s easier to shut yourself off emotionally so you can avoid the pain of rejection.

Or maybe your primary caregivers were unreliable and erratic: sometimes they ignored you and then suddenly they were all up in your face. You didn’t know why, so you assumed something was wrong with you; it was your fault. So the reason you don’t share your story with others is not that you don’t trust them, but that you don’t trust yourself. Surely your story doesn’t matter; surely you won’t be able to communicate it effectively.

Or maybe your caregivers were unreliable and unavailable, so you don’t trust others or yourself. And you think, “I’m a Christian, but my faith is private. It’s my business. So you do you, and I’ll do me.”

Well, Stephen wasn’t hampered by any fears or relational baggage. He was bold to the point of death, because he knew something that we need to know: you have to give what you cannot keep in order to gain what you cannot lose.

We’ll unpack what this means in just a minute, but first it’s worth asking, “Even if Stephen’s situation is relevant for my life, is his example helpful?”

Stephen seems like a Super Christian. I’m nothing like that. Most of you are nothing like that. But is Stephen really Super Christian, or is something else at play here that gives him strength beyond himself?

Remember Neill introduced us to Stephen in his sermon last week. The minority culture within the church had been complaining that the majority was getting preferential treatment in a food program. The apostles responded,

ACTS 6:2 “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables.

And so they said, “Pick seven guys to wait tables, and take care of this problem.” And Stephen was one of those seven guys. He wasn’t an apostle. He hadn’t been one of Jesus’ original twelve disciples.

If Stephen were a 21st century American Christian, he wouldn’t be the guy writing best-selling books and speaking at major conferences. He wouldn’t have a Top 10 iTunes podcast, a DVD series, and a preaching slot on a cable station. Stephen wouldn’t have a chart-topping worship album, recorded live at a sold out Yum Center.

Stephen waits tables.

Stephen is like the person who gets here early every Sunday and starts grinding fresh beans and brewing coffee so you can have a cup when you arrive. Stephen holds the door open for you and says, “Welcome to Sojourn.” Stephen helps pre-schoolers learn about Jesus over in SojournKids.

Stephen hosts a community group at home and then cleans up afterwards, before going to bed. Stephen wipes the table after breakfast and then reads a chapter of the Jesus Storybook Bible to the kids.

Stephen is you.

But just like you (if you’re a Christian in this room) Stephen was filled with the Holy Spirit. And the Holy Spirit began to do mighty things through this table-waiter, which is why the mob of unbelievers cornered him.

So how does he do it? How does he proclaim Jesus to unbelievers, even to the point of death?

Before we look at how he finds the will to do it, let’s look at what he actually does. Stephen takes his audience on a long journey through O.T. history.

First he reminds them of the patriarch Abraham. God asked Abraham to leave his home, travel far away from friends and loved ones, and settle in a new area that God would give to him and his descendants forever. But wait, Stephen admits –

Acts 7:5 “But God gave him no inheritance here, not even one square foot of land …”

Abraham devoted his life to doing what God asked. For what?

Next Stephen reminds them of Abraham’s grandson Jacob and great-grandson Joseph, whose brothers sold him to slavery in Egypt. But God worked it so Joseph became second in command to the king of Egypt. And when famine devoured the land, Joseph was able to bring Jacob and all the family to Egypt, so they wouldn’t starve. However, surely this was temporary because Egypt wasn’t the Promised Land. But then Stephen says in 7:15 —

Act 7:15 So Jacob went to Egypt. He died there …

And so did Joseph. For what?

Then Stephen reminds them of Moses, miraculously rescued as an infant by the princess of Egypt and raised as her own son. He had it all: riches, education, a royal family. But God called Moses away from all that, to lead his people out of Egypt and back to the Promised Land.

Only, Stephen tells us  –

Acts 7:39 “But our ancestors refused to listen to Moses. They rejected him and wanted to return to Egypt.

Moses gave what he could not keep – a life as the prince of Egypt. For what?

Elsewhere in the New Testament, the writer of the book of Hebrews gives us a hint:

Heb 11:39-40 – All these people earned a good reputation because of their faith, yet none of them received all that God had promised. For God had something better in mind for us, so that they would not reach perfection without us.

Something better in mind? What?

Then Stephen quickly sweeps through the stories of Joshua, David, and finally Solomon, who built the temple – a special house for God. And immediately he adds,

Acts 7:48 However, the Most High doesn’t live in temples made by human hands.

Stephen’s wasn’t denigrating the temple, he was trying to show them that Jesus is the fulfillment of it. He is the “something better in mind” that the Old Testament patriarchs longed to see. In fact, to see Jesus is to see God. One of the titles for Jesus, “Immanuel,” actually means “God with us.” We sing about this at Christmas:

Pleased as man with man to dwell
Jesus our Immanuel.

The Babylonians destroyed Solomon’s original temple hundreds of years before Christ. The temple that Stephen’s accusers are so hung up about was the second temple. And history tells us the Romans destroyed that one a few decades after today’s story.

Stephen is saying that buildings and traditions are things that we cannot keep. But Jesus, we cannot lose.

Then, Stephen’s slam dunk:

Acts 7:51 “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! 52 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.

Now here’s the big secret to his boldness: Stephen might not have been a brave man on his own, but he knew that these people had just killed Jesus last year. And three days later Jesus rose from his grave, was seen by hundreds of people for forty days, and then ascended into the sky to prepare a place for his followers.

And to top it all, as the mob presses in on Stephen, he sees that place and he sees his Lord:

7:55 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.

“The guy that you killed last year … I see him! What can you do to me?

Stephen’s vision of Jesus was connected to the historical reality of Easter, which just happened a year before, with hundreds of eyewitnesses. Atheists will sometimes say things like, “The resurrection was like a lot of earlier pagan legends that developed over a long period of time.

“What really happened was, the disciples missed Jesus so much after he died that they began to treasure his memory. And they began to feel like he was somehow still with them – like loved ones who have passed on, but you still feel close to them. And over time these feelings grew stronger, and the story got passed down to new generations, and like a game of ‘Telephone’ the story kept changing slightly until a generation arose who thought Jesus had literally risen from the grave.”

But it takes centuries for legends like that to develop. Stephen sees a man in the clouds who had been murdered and then rose from the dead last year!

And the earliest written accounts of the resurrection in our Bibles were written just 15 years after the resurrection. Even 15 years isn’t nearly enough time for a legend to develop. 15 year ago from our day, terrorists destroyed the World Trade Center in New York. If you’re old enough, you probably remember it like it happened yesterday.

Other atheists say, “The early church invented the resurrection because they were trying to run a scam and make themselves important.” Well, it wasn’t working for Stephen – he was a table waiter! They didn’t even make him an apostle. And now he can avoid having his head crushed by stones if he just says, “All right, Jesus is dead.” But he can’t, because he sees him! He sees Jesus, high and lifted up in heaven’s throne room!

7:56 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!”

The threat against Stephen’s life meant nothing to him – he was going to die anyway. His body, just like the temple, just like our bodies, was already in the process of decay. So he trusted his future to the one who conquered the grave. He gave what he could not keep, in order to gain what he could not lose.

This is the reality we celebrate each week here in this room. The early church began to gather every Sunday because it was the day the Lord had risen. And 2000 years later, countless people all over the world still do it. I used to think, “What can we do on Sundays to acknowledge the resurrection? We have communion for the cross, but what about the resurrection?”

But there is something we do each Sunday, because of the resurrection. We come here! In fact, anywhere you could think to go on a vacation some Sunday, you can walk into a room full of people singing praises to a Palestinian Jew who died 2000 years ago. Only the resurrection can explain that. Your vision of the resurrected Jesus is right before your eyes – it’s each other!

The universal church was built on the historical fact of Easter – if our faith wasn’t founded on this fact, none of us would be here with morning. Christianity would have died out hundreds of years ago, and we’d only study about it in college classes on ancient religions and myths. Instead, for 2000 years people have experienced union with Jesus as he strengthens them and he comforts them through the most trying days of their lives. And he brings them together to worship him, not just on Easter but every Sunday. They come from all walks of life, all ethnicities, all income levels.

And we don’t just gather to praise a resurrected Jesus who is all-powerful, but one who is all loving. He’s not a distant God. He’s a particular person who shows up in a particular way, inside of you, promising to preserve you till the day you see him face to face and he wipes all tears from your eyes. This is the relationship you’ve always wanted, with someone who is never unavailable, never unreliable.

As we learn to trust Jesus, we realize what a heavy burden the emotional bags of yesterday were, and how tired our arms had grown from carrying them. We begin to set them down, because we’ve become united with the One who promised never to leave or forsake us, even in death. We’re not afraid to speak for him because no one can take anything away from us that Jesus can’t restore. Not our dignity. Not love. Not friendship. Not even our lives.

Now, I’ve got three practical ways that we, as a church, can practice giving what we can’t keep, to gain what we can’t lose:

First: our relationships with non-Christians. If you tell someone about Jesus, you may lose the relationship. Maybe they’ll start avoiding you, or they’ll make fun of you, or write you off altogether. But these relationships are doomed anyway because when death comes you’ll be separated forever. Ultimately you have nothing to lose and everything to gain by introducing someone to Christ.

You have a golden opportunity for this in a couple weeks: Invite Your One! If you still haven’t filled out your commitment card and pinned it up on the board in our Coffee Room, do it today. Just think of one person you can invite to our 5th Anniversary service. If you’re not going to be in town that Sunday, bring them next week instead!

Second: our time. Time spent praising, serving and learning from God is never wasted. He gives us unending days. Believe it or not, one of the hardest adjustments I had to make for the job I have here at the church is my early Sunday mornings. I like to start Sunday morning with a newspaper and a cup of coffee on my couch. Then I’d like to roll into church right as we start the 11am service.

Instead I’m here early in the morning, getting ready for the services. It’s certainly not like facing down a rock-wielding mob. It’s a small sacrifice, and I’m a small person. But God is working on me.

Third: our money. If you really want to know who (or what) someone worships, look at how they steward their money. Matthew 6:19-20 says,

Don’t store up treasures here on earth, where moths eat them and rust destroys them, and where thieves break in and steal. Store your treasures in heaven, where moths and rust cannot destroy, and thieves do not break in and steal.

You know what this means? You can’t take it with you when you go, but you can send it on ahead. Our money, like our relationships and our time, can bring eternal dividends when we invest in the kingdom of God. And this passage, along with many others, is saying that our experience of heaven and our reward in heaven is affected by our stewardship of our money, our time, and our relationships in this life.

Give what you cannot keep in order to gain what you cannot lose.

What if we embraced this? Nothing is wasted; nothing is lost. But God does amazing things through people and through local churches who trust him to supply their needs.

Even if we don’t fully see the results in this short life, we can trust the one who always keeps his promises – even the promise to defeat death. One thing happened in Stephen’s last moments that he could not have anticipated. Acts 7:58:

they 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.

Spoiler alert: if you’ve been a Christian awhile you know that God is going to turn Saul’s life around, change his name to Paul, and then reach the world through Paul’s ministry. We’ll learn all about Paul in the weeks to come, but it started here. Stephen had no idea about the chain of events that would bring glory to God, starting with him – the table waiter.


We see several parallels between the murders of Stephen and Jesus: false witnesses, charges of blasphemy, an angry mob. Jesus and Stephen each cried two prayers:

  1. for the forgiveness of his executioners
  2. for the reception of his spirit.

But Jesus, as the only perfect, sinless Son of God, prayed directly to the Father. Stephen prayed to Jesus, because he knew Jesus is the only way to the Father – this was his whole point all along. He didn’t need to run to the temple; he needed to call out to Jesus.

Stephen couldn’t keep the life he had, (picks up the bread), but he couldn’t lose the life Jesus offered.

On the night that he was betrayed, Jesus took a loaf of bread like this one, and after giving thanks he broke it, and said, “This is my body, broken for you.” Then he took a cup of wine like this one, and said, “This is my blood, shed for you. Drink this in remembrance of me, until I come again.”

In a moment you’ll walk forward after we pray, tearing off a piece of bread and dipping it into either wine or juice as your conscience permits. The cups with wine will have strings of twine tied around them. And we’ll have a gluten-free station here on my left.

If you’re not a Christian we ask that you don’t come forward to take communion, because it symbolizes a union that you haven’t chosen yet. Instead pray at your seat to receive Christ as your Lord and Savior. Stop holding so tightly to a dirt clod when diamonds are waiting for you. Give what you cannot keep, in order to gain what you cannot lose.

Let’s pray.

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