Persevering Through Persecution
Copyright © 2004 Jeremy Myers
1. Stephens's Signs (v. 8)
2. Stephen vs. the Synagogue (v. 9)
3. Stephen's Speech (v. 10)
4. Stephen Seized (v. 11-12)
5. Stephen Said… (v. 13-14)
6. Stephen's Saintliness (v. 15)
On the last night of Jesus' life, before Jesus and the disciples head off to the Mount of Olives, the last thing Jesus tells His disciples is that in this world, they will face tribulation. In this world, they will face troubles. In this world, they will face persecution (John 16:33). He told them earlier that night that the world will hate them because it hated Him first (John 15:18).
Both of these passages have been notoriously abused and misused over the years to teach all sorts of things. I have heard some people use John 16:33 to teach that Christians will not go through the seven year period called the Great Tribulation. But that is not what Jesus was teaching at all. He was talking about normal, everyday living. Jesus was telling His disciples that if they live for Him as they should, the world will cause trouble for them. I have also heard these verses used as a way to explain why some Christians seem to go out of their way to offend non-Christians. They seem to think that unless there are a several people out there who hate them, then they must not be living for Christ enough. Yes, the cross is a stumbling block and the Gospel is an offense to those who are perishing, but it not we are to be the stumbling block and the offense.
If people choose not to become a Christian, it should not be because they come across as rude or arrogant. If people choose not to become Christians, it should only be because they cannot accept the fact that Jesus Christ paid the full penalty for their sin, and there is nothing they can add to His sacrifice. If people want to ridicule Christianity, the only accusation they should be able to level at us is that we make faith in Jesus Christ the only way of eternal life. Don't go out of your way to be offensive and to make non-Christians angry at you. This is not what Jesus meant when He said, "In this world, you will have trouble," and "The world will hate you because it hated me first."
One example of all of this is Stephen - the first Christian martyr. The events leading up to his persecution and death are found in Acts 6:8-15. We begin in verse 8 by seeing Stephen's signs.
1. Stephen's Signs (v. 8)
8And Stephen, full of faith and power, did great wonders and signs among the people.
Stephen is full of faith and power. (Some less reliable manuscripts say grace and power). This is faith in God and the power of God. It is not Stephen's faith that performed the signs and wonders, it is God who performed them. It is not Stephens' power; it is the power of God. Stephen believed that God could do these things and God did. God still can do these things today, and sometimes does. But remember, prior to the completion of the New Testament, signs and wonders among the Jews were the signature of a prophet of God. The Jews were to be able to know who was a true prophet and who was not based on who verified their words with signs and wonders. Today, since the completion of the New Testament, we verify a person's words by comparing them with the Words of Scripture.
In this day and age, God allows Satan to counterfeit signs and wonders, and there are many who use tricks and other gimmicks to make people think they are seeing signs and wonders. So it is not always safe to judge a teacher by whether or not they seem to be able to perform signs and wonders. Today, we must use the infallible, always trustworthy Word of God to determine truth and error. But the Jews in Stephen's day should have known that Stephen was from God because of the signs and wonders that he performed. But they did not. They were so hard of heart that they refused to listen to what he said, and ignored the signs that accompanied his teaching.
In verse 9, he comes into conflict with a specific synagogue.
2. Stephen vs. the Synagogue (v. 9)
9Then there arose some from what is called the Synagogue of the Freedmen (Cyrenians, Alexandrians, and those from Cilicia and Asia), disputing with Stephen.
Remember, there were hundreds of synagogues in and around Jerusalem at the time, and while it was the goal of every Synagogue to teach the Word of God to those who attended and train them to live for God, not all the synagogues were identical in this. Some did a better job of teaching than others. Some developed into some sort of sect of Judaism. Some almost became cults (John mentions the synagogue of Satan in Rev. 2:9; 3:9). It is just like today and the variety of churches in almost every city. For the most part, each church has a different emphasis, different focus, different style of music, different theology and so on. Now, this is all fine, as long as a church remains obedient to God's clear instructions in the Bible. But the sad fact is that most churches out there today are doing "church" the way they think church should be done, rather than the way God says it should be done.
I was talking to a lady just this week who doesn't attend church with us, and I was talking to her about the church she does attend. She said that it was good that there were so many different kinds and styles of churches, because there are so many different kinds of people. Her exact words were, "This way, people can pick the kind of church they want to go to." And guess what? She is exactly right. The variety of churches that are available does indeed allow people to pick the kind of church they want to go to. But although she is right, this is not the way God intended it to be. God doesn't want people to pick a church based on what they want. He wants people to pick a church based on what He wants. Today, one of the main reasons there are so many churches is because they gather around them teachers who say what their itching ears want to hear (2 Tim. 4:3). You see, most people don't want to hear what God wants them to hear. They just go where the church gives them their desires and tells them what they want to hear.
God has told us very clearly what His church should be and do, and any church that strays from this is not a Biblical church. Now, God's instructions are relatively few and limited. They leave lots of room for variety. I am not against having multiple churches in a community with different ways of doing things and different kinds of music and outreach and styles. But we must make sure that in our variety, we are not sacrificing the God ordained essentials on the altar of giving people what they want to hear. Nevertheless, many people will ignore the Word of God, and do what they want anyway. This is the case today just as it was the case with the synagogues in Stephen's day. There were numerous synagogues. Many of them followed God's instructions. Many of them did not.
One of those who did not is mentioned here in verse 9. It was called the Synagogue of the Freedmen.
While it is possible that this synagogue had some special theological stance which made them particularly adverse to Stephen's teaching, what seems most likely is that this is the synagogue Stephen attended and taught at, and so this was the synagogue that debated with him the most. It does not appear that the title Freedmen is a reference to some particular practice or theological belief which set them apart from other synagogues. You see, Freedmen or Libertines were slaves who had been set free. Apparently, this was a synagogue made up mainly of Jews who at one time were slaves and had been set free. That was the thing that united them and brought them together. Some of them, according to verse 9, came from Cyrene, Alexadria, Cilicia and Asia. Therefore, this synagogue would have consisted mainly of Hellenistic Jews, of which Stephen was one. He was attending a synagogue that had a similar background as himself. But nevertheless, they didn't like what Stephen was teaching.
It says they were disputing with Stephen. Most likely, they were disputing with him about Jesus being the Messiah. They were probably disputing with him about how to receive eternal life. But Stephen was well prepared to answer their objections. He had studied to show himself approved. He knew the Word of God and so could give them an answer for the hope that he had. They were not able to refute his speech or his teaching.
3. Stephen's Speech (v. 10)
10And they were not able to resist the wisdom and the Spirit by which he spoke.
This is another fulfillment of the promises in Luke 12:11-12 and John 14:26. Sometimes people use these verses to justify their lack of Bible study. They say they don't need to study the Bible, because when they need it, the Holy Spirit will tell them what they need to say. But if we really look at these passages, especially John 14:26, they teach that the Holy Spirits causes us to remember what we have learned. If you haven't read the Bible and haven't studied the Bible, and haven't memorized Scripture, there is nothing there for the Holy Spirit to cause you to remember. Stephen had studied the Bible, and knew the Bible. He understood the concepts and teachings of the Bible. He had sat under the teaching of the apostles. He knew the arguments of the world, and the argument of the legalistic Jews, and how to refute them. He was well prepared. Which is why they were not able to resist him. He was wise in the Word, and the Spirit used Stephen's knowledge of the Word to answer every question and refute every argument they threw his way.
Nevertheless, Satan had blinded their eyes, and they were not persuaded by his teaching. In verse 11, they seize him and bring him before the Jewish council.
4. Stephen Seized (v. 11-12)
11Then they secretly induced men to say, "We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God." 12And they stirred up the people, the elders, and the scribes; and they came upon him, seized him, and brought him to the council.
Stephen is arrested for nothing more than teaching the Word of God with conviction, clarity and power. But they don't like this, and so they secretly induce men to lie about him, and they stirred up the people against him and seized him to be put on trial. And verses 13-14 show what they say about him.
5. Stephen Said… (v. 13-14)
13They also set up false witnesses who said, "This man does not cease to speak blasphemous words against this holy place and the law; 14for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs which Moses delivered to us."
It is probably true that Stephen did teach things similar to what his accusers say, but that they were twisting his words and only speaking half-truths. We do know that Jesus taught these things (John 2:19; Luke 22:20). We know that Paul taught these things (1 Cor. 3:16-17; Rom. 6:14; 10:4; Gal. 3:25). The truth that Jesus taught, that Paul taught and that Stephen probably taught was that Jesus Christ was the fulfillment of the law and the temple. When Jesus said that this temple would be destroyed, He was speaking of His own body. But the Jews misunderstood Jesus, and they misunderstand and pervert what Stephen had been teaching.
And they twist what Stephen was probably teaching about the customs of Moses. The teachings of Jesus, Stephen, and Paul are that the law never saved anybody. People have always been and always will be saved by grace through faith. What Jesus and Stephen and Paul were trying to do when they talked about the law, was put it in it's proper place as God had originally intended it. God never intended the Mosaic Law to be a way of getting to heaven. But this is what the average Jew understood it to be. And so when Jesus, Stephen and Paul challenged this, the Jews got mad at them because they thought that the Mosaic Law was being discarded, when the only thing that was being discarded were the traditions and false teachings of men.
But the Jews misunderstood all of this, and gave false witnesses and half-truths to the ruling council about what Stephen had been teaching. This is all very similar to what happened with Jesus also. Aside from teaching similar truths, there are many similarities between Stephen and Jesus.
They both were put on trial before the ruling council (Mark 14:53)
There were false witnesses to tell lies about them (Mk. 14:56-57; Mt. 26:60-61)
There was testimony about the destruction of the temple (Mark 14:58; Matt. 26:61)
There was the charge of blasphemy (Mark 14:16; Matt. 26:63).
There are other similarities as well when Stephen dies in chapter 7, but we will see those then. Chapter 6 closes with how God responded through Stephen to these false accusations and false arrest. Stephen's saintliness is evident to all.
6. Stephen's Saintliness (v. 15)
15And all who sat in the council, looking steadfastly at him, saw his face as the face of an angel.
I don't know what the face of an angel looks like, but I imagine it has some sort of heavenly glow about it - not necessarily light, but just a peace and joy and love that you don’t see on most people. I have seen Christians who have this saintly appearance, and you know, just by looking at them, that they are in close communion and fellowship with God. Stephen was like this. He had done everything God wanted him to do, and was facing persecution and slander because of it. Now, God was revealing Himself through Stephen to Stephen's accusers.
This reference to Stephen's face should remind us of Moses' face in the Old Testament that shone with the glory of God after he came down from Mt. Sinai. The Jews should have immediately recognized that Stephen was not against the law of Moses, he was preaching the fulfillment of the law of Moses in Jesus Christ. Stephens's signs and wonders pointed to this. Stephen's speech pointed to this. And now, Stephen's saintly appearance, the Moses-like glow on his face pointed to this. God gave them every sign that Stephen was speaking for God, but the Jews refused to listen, and in chapter 7, after a powerful sermon by Stephen, they stone him to death. We will begin to look at that next week.
I want to conclude this lesson with a few Biblical instructions on how you too can face persecution. We don't face persecution the way some Christians do in China and Africa and other parts of the world, but America is increasingly becoming antagonistic to genuine Christianity. We received a threat just this week about our attempt to add an amendment to the Montana Constitution defining marriage as between one man and one woman. This letter told us that if we use our religious community to support this amendment, we could jeopardize our tax status and may face litigation due to a refusal to maintain the separation of church and state. In short, they were threatening the church for taking a stand against homosexuality.
Such threats will become increasingly common as the world continues to degenerate and standing on the Word of God becomes less and less acceptable. People are willing to be tolerant of everything but the Bible. Oh, they don't mind so-called Christians who say that all religions lead to God, and anybody who tries to be a nice person will get to heaven. That's not the kind of Christianity that gets persecuted. The kind of Christianity that gets persecuted in America is the kind that says Jesus Christ is the only way to heaven and only those who believe in Jesus for eternal life will make it to heaven. And as the world become more and more tolerant, as the ecumenical movement gains intensity and power, genuine Christianity will face more and more persecution - both from the government and from organized religion.
So we need to prepare ourselves right now for facing persecution. And there are several keys to dealing with persecution. We had six points of Stephen's stance against persecution, and now we have six keys to dealing with persecution in your own life.
First, you must prepare for persecution. And the only way to prepare is by getting as close to God as possible and gaining as much knowledge of His Word as possible. Imagine if you were arrested and put in prison and they did not give you a Bible. You could pray, but there is something spiritually energizing about reading the Word and thinking about the Word. The Word feeds our soul. It encourages us when we are depressed. There are promises contained within it that push us on when we feel like giving up.
One key to dealing with persecution is preparation for it. And we prepare by gaining knowledge of the Word, knowledge of God and His faithfulness to you no matter what, and also, knowledge of your future. Paul says in Romans 8:18 that if we know what our future is, if we know where we are headed after this life, if we know the glory that will be revealed in us, we can face any trial, trouble or test that the world or Satan throws our way. We can face any problem if we keep eternity in view (Rom. 8:18).
2. Personal Holiness
This is somewhat like being prepared, but different. The preparation stage was adding knowledge and an intimate relationship with God to your life. This key is taking away sin from your life. Any sin in your life is a chink in your armor which Satan will use to cause you to stumble and fall when facing persecution. Hebrews 12:1-12 tells us how important it is to throw off the sin that entangles us and trips us up. Jesus is the prime example in this. He did not shirk His responsibility to the cross because He was holy and perfect. The less sin we have in our lives, the easier it is to run the race marked out for us.
Romans 5:3-5 tells us that persecution helps us persevere. If we undergo it, it will help us persevere more in the future. Persecution is like the fires of a forge, burning away the dross and the impurities so that only the pure, refined gold comes out. But if you take the metal out too soon, it will not be refined. It will not be as valuable as it could have been. In persecution, don't necessarily ask for the persecution to cease. Instead, ask that God will teach you, refine you and use you in the midst of the persecution to become what He wants you to be - pure and holy, tried and true. Don't escape the refining fire until the blacksmith says you are ready (Psalm 66:10; Isa. 48:10; Zech. 13:9; 1 Pet. 1:7; Rev. 3:18).
We must also remember to be patient in suffering. James 1:2-8 tells us all about this. It is key to remember when we are in trials and temptation, that these things are only preparing us for eternity. Be patient in suffering, but this life is short and though it is difficult, eternity is long and will be full of peace and joy. Be patient in persecution because the trials and troubles you are facing will end and all things will be set straight after we die (cf. Rom. 8:28)
Remember that no matter what, your ultimate purpose in life is to glorify God. Persecution is an opportunity to bring glory to God's name and God's kingdom. Whatever the trial may be, look around for opportunities to praise God, to witness to others, to remain steadfast and strong. Recognize that it is a battle. Satan is trying to get you to bring shame to the cause of Christ. God wants to glorify Himself in and through you. The outcome is dependant upon how you react to suffering. Remember that persecution brings opportunities to serve and glorify God you wouldn't otherwise have. When the apostle Paul was chained to a Roman guard, who was actually the prisoner? Not Paul. He used those opportunities to witness to the guard. He literally had a "captive audience." In your own suffering and situation, look for ways to glorify God.
6. Power and Presence of God
James 5:10-11 teaches us that like Stephen, as you face the persecution, God will glorify Himself through your perseverance under the trial. Trust that you will speak the words He wants you to speak. That you will reflect His light and His love, even to those who are persecuting you, and that when people look at your joy in spite of persecution, they will want to become a Christian too. When you have prepared, when you are holy, when you are persevering, when you are patient in the face of suffering, when your purpose is to glorify God no matter what, God will show up and will make your face like the face of an angel.
Persecution is a part of being a Christian. Some of us face more than others, but we must all be prepared to face whatever God sends our way, so that we can stand firm under the trial.