Summary: A series of character sketches in the book of Acts - Stephen. Also International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church.
Acts 7:54-8:4 – God’s Power Through God’s People #8: Stephen
And now, we come to the final sermon, #9, of this series. Since September, we have been studying in the book of Acts, watching how God’s power flowed through His people to make a difference. In the 1st part of Acts 1, we saw how God’s power is available for us today. We also saw in Acts 1 how Judas missed the point of living for God. Next, in Acts 2, we saw Peter, being changed and being used. Acts 3 told the story of a beggar, who was crippled, being healed and fixed and used for God. Sermon #5, from Acts 4, talked about Barnabas, a fellow who encouraged others so much that he got a nickname for it. In Acts 8, we met a guy named Simon Magus, who wanted power and control for selfish reasons. Sermon #7 was basically a tour through Acts, studying how God’s speaks to His people today. Last week, we saw how God creates divine appointments, meetings between believers and non-believers that bring glory to Him, demonstrating his great love for us through the example of Peter and Cornelius.
Today I want to conclude our series looking at a great hero of the faith. He would be among the great cloud of witnesses mentioned in Hebrews 12. His name is Stephen, and his story is told in Acts 6-8. Let’s start in 6:8-15.
The question is asked in 7:1: “Are these charges true?” Stephen then answers that question with a fairly long sermon. Well, long compared to other recorded sermons in Acts. Skimming through his answer, he basically retells the history of the Jewish people. He mentions Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and Joseph. He spends a long time with Moses and Aaron, and the Hebrew people in their desert wanderings. Through the sermon, Stephen keeps mentioning how the ancestors were sinful and stubborn, and refused to continue to trust in God.
His sermon does not end with an altar call. There is no encouragement to put 3 points into practice. He does not greet them at the door with a smile and handshake. No, he ends with this: 7:51-53.
And, I’m sure you will not be surprised to read their reaction: 7:54. And they act on their anger: 7:55-59.
Stephen became the very 1st Christian martyr that day. But the persecution did not end that day. Rather, it intensified. Mass persecution broke out, and the Christians living in Jerusalem had to scatter to save their lives. In Acts 12, Herod persecuted the apostles for political gain. Opposition to the gospel led the apostles to flee in Acts 13. In Acts 16, the gospel threatened trade, economic prosperity and the fortune-telling industry in the city of Ephesus, so false accusations lead to missionaries to being severely beaten. In Acts 19, the gospel threatened trade, economic prosperity and the idol industry, also in Ephesus, and this time the idol-makers incited riot that got out of control. Paul was beaten and arrested in Acts 21, and he eventually lost his life because of his faith. Peter was killed for his faith. Thomas died for his faith. Most of the apostles, in fact, died because they trusted in Jesus.
Suffering for Jesus is not new. And Stephen, who was the 1st to die for Jesus… his legacy serves as an example for all of us. And it is in this spirit that we come to the Sunday in the church calendar called the International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church. It is a Sunday in November, usually the 2nd Sunday but we’ll celebrate it on the 3rd, that we take time to remember Christians around the world, who, like Stephen, are still being persecuted for what they believe.
Many experts suggest that more than 200 million people in over 60 nations face violent persecution or detention because of their identity as Christians. That’s 6 times the population of Canada. At least that many or more are discriminated against on a regular basis because of the faith.
So, how many Christians are martyred each year? That’s a good question. The website for the IDOP says this: “It is difficult, if not impossible, to say for certain how many Christians are killed for their faith annually. Queries to those who do such research have shown that their figures are, in fact, projected averages or statistical guesses rather than based on hard figures or actual documentation. Sadly, most martyrs suffer and die anonymously, unknown, forgotten, their deaths unrecorded except in heaven. Even email, which most of us consider a basic everyday tool is a struggle to use in places like Ethiopia, Burma, and much of central Africa. Even where it is more readily available, it is not secure. Much goes unreported or is reported months, even years later.