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Take up your cross and follow Jesus, even to death

Back to all sermons Acts of the Holy Spirit

Date: June 12, 2022

Speaker: Eric Stillman

Series: Acts of the Holy Spirit

Scripture: Acts 6:8– 8:1

This morning we are continuing through the book of Acts, the story of the early church. In the first chapters, Jesus has risen from the dead, ascended to heaven, and sent His Holy Spirit to be the presence and power of God inside each believer. Since then, the transformed disciples have been boldly sharing about Jesus’ death for their sins and his resurrection and triumph over death, calling people to turn from their sin and self-centeredness to faith in Jesus, and thousands of people are coming to faith in Jesus. A multi-ethnic community has formed in Jerusalem that is growing like crazy, devoted to following Jesus and caring for everyone’s needs. But they have also experienced persecution, corruption, and leadership challenges as they try to follow Jesus and bring the good news to their community and world. In the last section, they chose seven godly men to take on the task of meeting the needs of the widows that their church was caring for. One of them, Stephen, will be the focus of today’s passage. Beginning in verse 8:


 8 Now Stephen, a man full of God's grace and power, did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people.  9 Opposition arose, however, from members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called)-- Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia. These men began to argue with Stephen,  10 but they could not stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by whom he spoke.  11 Then they secretly persuaded some men to say, "We have heard Stephen speak words of blasphemy against Moses and against God."  12 So they stirred up the people and the elders and the teachers of the law. They seized Stephen and brought him before the Sanhedrin.  13 They produced false witnesses, who testified, "This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place and against the law.  14 For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us."  15 All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.  Then the high priest asked him, "Are these charges true?" 


What is going on here? The Jewish religious and political elite are unhappy with Stephen’s ministry, because they do not want people believing that Jesus is the Messiah. They attempt to argue with him theologically, but can not out-argue him or quiet him, and so they resort to slander. They falsely accuse of him of speaking against the temple and against God’s law, and they stir up opposition against him. Unfortunately that works, and Stephen is brought before the Sanhedrin, the supreme court in Israel, made up of 70 men and the high priest.


Stephen responds by recounting the history of Israel, focusing on the time of Abraham, Joseph and the Egyptian exile, Moses and the exodus, and David and Solomon and the temple. I’m not going to read the whole section, as it is very long and not my focus today. Stephen shows them how God has worked with many different people in many different places, that he is not contained by the temple or any other building:


"However, the Most High does not live in houses made by men. As the prophet says:  49 "'Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me? says the Lord. Or where will my resting place be? Has not my hand made all these things?'”


He shows them that he is not speaking against the law and the temple, but instead shows them how the law, the temple, all the people and stories of the Old Testament point to Jesus and find their fulfillment in Him. Jesus has fulfilled the law and replaced the temple. And finally, he confronts his accusers, telling them that they are the ones who are resisting God and speaking against Him, not him:


51 "You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit!  52 Was 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--  53 you who have received the law that was put into effect through angels but have not obeyed it." 


Just like Peter, James and John, Stephen is bold and unafraid in the face of opposition. What happens next?


54 When they heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him.  55 But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.  56 "Look," he said, "I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God."  57 At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him,  58 dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul.  59 While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit."  60 Then he fell on his knees and cried out, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." When he had said this, he fell asleep.  NIV Acts 8:1 And Saul was there, giving approval to his death. On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.


The crowd stones him, and as he is dying, he looks up to heaven and sees the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand, the place of authority. He is standing and advocating for Stephen, expressing His approval of him.


Romans 8:33-34 - Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies.  34 Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died-- more than that, who was raised to life-- is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.


FF BruceStephen has been confessing Christ before men, and now he sees Christ confessing his servant before God.


Matthew 10:32-33 - "Whoever acknowledges me before men, I will also acknowledge him before my Father in heaven.  33 But whoever disowns me before men, I will disown him before my Father in heaven.


Like Jesus, Stephen has been rejected by the court of human opinion. But in the real court, the heavenly throne room, Stephen has been approved by God. And like Jesus, he dies full of grace, praying for his executioners. He dies with honor and grace, trusting in Jesus and forgiving them.


Stephen is the first martyr, the first Christian to die because of his faith in Jesus. True faithfulness to Jesus in most times and cultures has always been likely to lead to opposition and persecution. If everyone loves you, there is a good chance that you are not truly following Jesus but simply adapting your Christianity to the spirit of the age. After all, Jesus said:


John 15:18-20 - "If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first.  19 If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you.  20 Remember the words I spoke to you: 'No servant is greater than his master.' If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also


Hearing that true faithfulness to Jesus is very likely to result in the world hating you is not an easy teaching. Most of us, if we have any care for others, prefer to live in peace with people, even if that means toning down what we believe or sanding down the rough edges of our faith and doctrine. But this world is a battleground. Jesus came to rescue people from Satan, and sends us out to do the same. And so we will face opposition from the forces of evil. This can take many forms.


One form is a teaching that is very popular in Christian books and sermons and worship songs that tells people that faith in God leads to health, wealth, prosperity, favor, and so on. Raise your hand if you ever read or heard anything like that. Can you imagine Stephen and the early Christians hearing a sermon like that? Would they even recognize it as Christianity? Would they not say, “what part of our message or Jesus’ message led you to believe that financial blessing has anything to do with discipleship? When you read the story of Stephen, or pay close attention to what it is like to be a Christian in many countries in this world, it makes you sick to see how some Christian teachers have twisted the gospel, baptizing it with the American dream in order to draw a crowd and make a name and a profit for themselves.


In North Korea, citizens must venerate the Kim family. Christians are seen as hostile, and if you are found to be a Christian you are either killed or put in a labor camp. An estimated 50,000 to 70,000 Christians are currently imprisoned. And yet, there is a massive underground church of approximately 300,000-500,000 believers growing.


In Afghanistan, no faith except Islam is allowed to exist. If a person converts to Christianity, they must flee the country or be killed, often by their own family as an honor killing. Many other Islamic countries, such as Somalia, Libya, Yemen, and Pakistan are places where being a Christian means putting your life at risk.


In 2015, 21 men in Egypt were martyred for their faith by ISIS, beheaded one by one. One of those martyrs, Matthew Ayairga, was not a Christian when he was captured. When asked by his executioners if he rejected Christ, he was moved by the faith he witnessed from the others and said, “their God is my God,” accepting Christ there on the sport.


Last week in Nigeria, over 50 churchgoers were killed by an Islamic group that entered their church on Sunday and slaughtered men, women, and children.


(show books again)


They must not have had enough faith, or else certainly they would have been healthy and wealthy instead of murdered, right?


Listen: we worship and follow Jesus, fully God and fully man, whose greatness is linked to his willingness to give his life to save us from sin and death. And he told us that to follow him.


Matthew 16:24-26 - Then Jesus said to his disciples, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.  25 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.  26 What good will it be for a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul? Or what can a man give in exchange for his soul?


To take up your cross means to lay down your rights, your dreams, and to commit your life to following one who changed the world through sacrificial love. This is what Stephen did. This is what many in the early church did. Remember that in the first couple of centuries, many faithful believers were used as sport in the Colosseum as they were mauled by lions. Emperor Nero used Christians as torches to light his estate.


In the 2nd century, Tertullian said: “We are not a new philosophy but a divine revelation. That’s why you can’t just exterminate us; the more you kill the more we are. The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church. 


The Romans wanted the Christians to be good citizens and offer tribute to the false gods. They believed that making an example out of them by executing them would dissuade others from becoming Christians. But instead, their numbers increased. The witness of the martyrs made people wonder why the Christians would put their lives on the line, all for not offering a pinch of salt to Zeus.


Or as St. Ignatius of Antioch said as he approached his own martyrdom in the Colosseum:

“Now I begin to be a disciple of Christ. I care for nothing, of visible or invisible things, so that I may but win Christ. Let fire and the cross, let the companies of wild beasts, let breaking of bones and tearing of limbs, let the grinding of the whole body, and all the malice of the devil, come upon me; be it so, only may I win Jesus Christ.”

Are you willing to lay down your life as Jesus did for your world? Are you willing to preach the gospel and teach God’s truth and sacrificially love your neighbor no matter how the crowd treats you? You may never be beheaded for your faith. You may never be thrown in jail, although one day it may come to that. But you are still faced with the choice daily to go along with the crowd and gain their approval, or deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Jesus in sacrificial love, laying down your rights, your possessions, your time, and maybe even your life for the good of others. Are you willing to stand for the truth, even if you stand alone? Are you willing to give your life for others?


Listen, we look at how companies and organizations grow in this world, and we come to the conclusion that the church will grow in the same way, through flash and marketing and innovation. But the church grows when we follow Jesus, staying faithful to Him and to His Word, not loving our lives more than Him. The church grows when we lay down our lives in service to others as He laid down His life for us.


John 15:12-13 - My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you.  13 Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.


There is nothing we can’t give up that God won’t replace with something better:


Matthew 19:29 - And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life.


Look once more at how the church grows:                            


Acts 8:1 And Saul was there, giving approval to his death. On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.


Pray for the persecuted church.


1 Corinthians 12:24-26 - But God has combined the members of the body and has given greater honor to the parts that lacked it,  25 so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other.  26 If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.


Hebrews 13:3 - Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.


To learn more, visit the websites of Voice of the Martyrs or Open Doors USA. And pray for courage for us.