Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him.55 But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” 57 But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. 58 Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul.59 And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep. – Acts 7:54-60
Perhaps you have seen some of the horrible images of those who have been put to death because of their faith in Jesus Christ. Some of them are so horrible I will not describe them here. Voice of the Martyrs chronicles many of those persecutions for those who are interested. Sadly, just as in Stephen’s day, there are those who are committed to silencing the message of the gospel. There are those who want to stamp out the Christian faith at all costs – even the cost of life.
In the Early Church there was much controversy over the question about those who did not remain faithful in the face of torture. Some even wondered if one who denied Jesus – even under duress – could be saved. The question does not apply to Stephen, however, for he remained faithful all the way to the end. He was the first Christian martyr. Many would follow over the years. But he was first in that long line.
I notice how the Holy Spirit was the catalyst for Stephen’s witness to his vision of Jesus’ glory. So too is our witness emboldened by the Holy Spirit. I have long taught – and rightly so – that the Holy Spirit’s work is to bring us to faith in Jesus (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:3, and Luther’s Small Catechism, 3rd Article Explanation). The Holy Spirit’s work, however, does not stop there. The Spirit propels God’s people to witness and proclaim his grace. The Holy Spirit moves the church forward, and as we will see tomorrow, even in the face of persecution.
I would rather not ever be compelled to witness by means of threat or persecution. But I am thankful that the Holy Spirit is not hamstrung by the vilest of enemies and cruelest of persecutions. God’s message of grace, truth, life and salvation, will go out. People will be saved. Even in his last breath, Stephen is offering prayers for his persecutors. Only the Holy Spirit can inspire such rich grace.
Those who have paid the ultimate price now rest from their labors and their works do follow them. We are evidence of that fact. More important, we are beneficiaries of the Holy Spirit’s work moving people to give witness to the Good News, and moving us to faith, and – if God gives us the privilege – being tools of God’s grace to others who will join us around the throne with martyrs, angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven in giving glory to the Son of Man who is standing at the right hand of God.