Summary: 3rd in the series "Patterns for Prayer." The way Stephen faced death for his testimony is an inspiration and a pattern for us when we face persecution.
In midwinter of A.D. 320 Emperor Licinius sent out an edict that to show their allegience all soldiers were to offer sacrifice to the pagan gods. Forty members of the famed Twelfth Legion of Rome’s imperial army serving in Sevaste, in present-day Turkey refused the emporer’s order. Their captain summoned these forty Christian soldiers and ordered them to offer sacrifices to the pagan gods.
One of the soldiers answered on behalf of the rest. "We will not sacrifice. To do so is to betray our holy faith."
"But what about your comrades? Consider--you alone of Caesar’s troops defy him! Think of the disgrace you bring upon your legion. How can you do it?"
"To disgrace the name of our Lord Jesus Christ is more terrible still."
A note of exasperation crept into the governor’s voice. "Give up this stubborn folly. You have no lord but Caesar! In his name, I promise promotion to the first of you who steps forward and does his duty." He paused a moment, expecting his lure would break their ranks. None of them moved. He switched tactics. "You persist in your rebellion? Then prepare for torture, prison, death! This is your last chance. Will you obey your emperor?"
The soldiers stood firm, although they well knew the governor would carry out his threat. They spoke: "Nothing you can offer us would replace what we would lose in the next world. As for your threats--we’ve learned to deny our bodies where the welfare of our souls is at stake."
Over the next several days the captain had the men alternately flogged and thrown in the dungeon. Finally he had them marched onto a nearby frozen lake. He stripped them of their clothes and said they would either die or renounce Christ. Then upon the night air could be heard a prayer:
"Lord, there are forty of us engaged in this battle; grant that forty may be crowned and not one be missing from this sacred number." One by one the temperature took its toll and they fell to the ice.
At last there was only one man left. He lost courage and stumbled to the shore, where he renounced Christ. The officer of the guards had been watching all this. Unknown to the others, he had secretly come to believe in Christ watching the unswerving witness of the other 39. When he saw this last man break rank, he walked out onto the ice, threw off his clothes, and confessed that he also was a Christian. When the sun rose the next morning, there were forty bodies of soldiers who had fought to the death for Christ. (Lieghton Ford, Good News is for Sharing, 1977, David C. Cook Publishing Co., p. 16)
Where does courage of that kind spring from? If you’re like me you often struggle to stand firm even in the face of criticism or persecution of the mildest sort compared to that of Stephen or the 40 of Sevaste.
But if you’re like me you also long for the courage and conviction to stand firm in your faith and testimony, and here is where our study today can provide help and inspiration. I’d like to look at this the story of the first Martyr for the cause of Christ as a model for us to encourage us in our prayers under pressure.
I’d like to consider what Stephen did as a pattern for us.
Transition: The first thing I’d like you to notice is that even facing death Stephen...
Spoke the Truth in Love
51-53 "You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit! 52Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him—53you who have received the law that was put into effect through angels but have not obeyed it."
Stephen understood that this was not a receptive crowd. That he might pay dearly for his brutal honesty, yet he cared more about these who sought to harm him than he did his own life. He would not be silent to save his skin when he knew the Lord had called him to speak out.
The Bohemian reformer John Hus was a man who believed the Scriptures to be the infallible and supreme authority in all matters. In 1415 he died at the stake for that belief in Constance, Germany, on his forty-second birthday. As he refused a final plea to renounce his faith, Hus’s last words were, "What I taught with my lips, I seal with my blood."
Unfortunately in our lives of comfort and ease we not only have not yet resisted to the point of blood in many cases we have yet to open our mouths.