Summary: Stephen’s martyrdom calls to minds questions about our own faithfulness and witness.
In the magazine business, there is an inexorable law that says that you will sell more copies of an issue if you convince people that they can do more things or do multiple things more effectively. That’s why you always see lots of cover lines like: “100 Ways to Make Your Green Thumb Glow” or “50 Great Ways to Surprise the One You Really Care About.” In fact, the book business also has its share of “How To” successes. Just think how many times variations of the title, “How to Make a Million Dollars in the Stock Market” or “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Getting Rich” have sold a bunch. In fact, you’ve probably wondered, as have I, why anyone who had gotten wealthy via the stock market would bother writing a book.
In spite of the success of “How to” books and articles, though, I suspect that today’s text would be hard to package. “An Early Christian’s Guide on Getting Oneself Killed” just doesn’t sound like a big seller. Yet, martyrdom is such an extreme statement of one’s most fervent convictions that it has played a vital part in Christianity from the beginning. Of course, the mere fact of martyrdom doesn’t guarantee the correctness of one’s convictions—merely how firmly held they are. I’m sure the 9/11 terrorists felt like their martyrdom would show us decadent capitalists how corrupt we are. But to me, it shows how dangerous and demonic their faith can be. I’m sure the Buddhist monks who immolated themselves by pouring gasoline over themselves and lighting the fire during the ‘60s thought they were indicating the rightness of their cause. I’m sure the suicidal followers of Jim Jones and David Koresh felt their cause was just and that God would smile on them. And my heart certainly went out to the poor misguided souls in the ‘90s who thought they could hitchhike onto the so-called “mothership” by committing suicide were demonstrating the dangers of our materialistic society.
Napoleon Bonaparte is quoted as having said, “It is the cause, not the death, which makes the martyr.” So, I ask you, what is the difference between the martyrdom in the early church and these would-be martyrs to false causes? First of all, the early Christians were not deliberately seeking their deaths. They merely stood for what was right and expected God to do one of two things to vindicate them—protect them with the power of His Holy Spirit or welcome them into their eternal home. In a moment, I’m going to read a portion of our text, but I don’t want you to misunderstand me. I’m not asking you to seek out unnecessary confrontations. I’m not telling you to test God by putting yourself at tremendous risk to see if He’ll save you. To test God in that fashion would be like Jesus giving in to Satan’s temptation when the devil quoted scripture to suggest that if Jesus threw Himself down from the heights, God wouldn’t let Him fall. Jesus responded that it wasn’t right to test God in that way.
Let’s see what the Bible says. (Read Acts 6:8-15) Was Stephen looking for trouble? No. Because he was full of grace—gifts that God had given Him—and power—the ability to accomplish great things that we know from earlier in the book is the dynamic of the Holy Spirit, Stephen was accomplishing marvelous wonders that pointed toward God’s power—that’s what great signs means in verse 8. And he wasn’t merely putting on a magic show. He wasn’t on stage doing illusions to amuse the people. He was doing these great wonders and meaningful signs of God’s power in the midst of the people. In other words, he wasn’t seeking an occasion. He was ministering miraculously to the people much like his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ had done and like the apostles were doing. A real martyr doesn’t seek his/her death. An unsought death is the ultimate result of opposition to God and God’s work.
For Stephen, the opposition came about as a direct result of his ministry—the very fact that he was accomplishing God’s will and testifying to God’s purpose and presence. Verse 10 tells us that some of the leaders of the synagogues couldn’t refute or debate what he had said because Stephen was sharing and demonstrating divine wisdom and giving evidence of the Holy Spirit. It seems like the quickest way to get oneself killed is to get oneself filled. Of course, it isn’t necessarily God’s will that we be killed, but the book of Acts is a continual reminder to us that when we are filled with the Holy Spirit, we are going to incur the wrath of those who do not want to submit to God.
But just because we face opposition doesn’t mean God isn’t behind us—even if it seems like we’re being defeated. Verse 9 tells us some of the hometowns of Stephen’s critics and it might help you see a preview of coming attractions if you note that Cilicia was the territory in what is now Turkey where Paul ‘s (nee’ Saul’s) home of Tarsus was located. And, of course, Saul persecutes the church before he becomes Paul and Saul is complicit in what happens to Stephen.