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November 10 Today’s Reading: Acts 6-7
“They stoned Stephen, calling upon God.”
The first martyr in the history of the New Testament Church was Stephen, a faithful deacon. The death of this faithful man is recorded more fully than the death of anyone else in the New Testament, except that of our Lord Jesus Christ. Here is a man dying for the testimony of Christ, dying by the hands of wicked men, but dying in grace and dying graciously for the glory of God.
The Spirit of God directed Luke to identify just one of Stephen’s murderers. Those who stoned Stephen “laid down their clothes at a young man’s feet, whose name was Saul.” Saul was probably the man who examined Stephen and had been baffled by his speech when he stood before the Sanhedrin (Acts 6:8-10).
Here is a striking contrast. Stephen and Saul are in glory now. One cannot help wondering how Saul felt when Stephen’s smile met him at the throne! What a joyous meeting they must have had — Stephen and Saul embracing one another! But in this world these two men are poles apart. They had nothing in common. Stephen was about to die. Saul was holding the clothes of those who stoned him. Saul was a proud, self-righteous Pharisee. He was proud of his pedigree, his learning, his works, his religious position, and his great reputation. Stephen was a broken, humbled sinner, saved by the grace of God, whose only hope was in Christ. Saul was wrapped up in himself. Stephen was wrapped up in Christ. His heart was elated not by looking into a mirror, but by looking to Christ, his exalted Lord. He drew his comfort not from what he had done, but from what Christ had done for him. Saul was a religious ritualist. He placed great weight and importance on the externals of religion. To him the law, the temple, the priesthood, and the ceremonies were everything. Stephen’s religion was a matter of the heart, a living, spiritual union with God in Christ (Philippians 3:3; Acts 7:48-50). He knew that religious ceremony without faith in Christ is useless (Isaiah 1:10-15). Saul thought God was impressed with rituals and ceremonies. Stephen knew what few know — “The Lord looketh on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7; Luke 16:15). Saul defended his religion. For the defence of his religion he was willingly cunning, cruel, and callous. Stephen defended the cause of Christ, even at the cost of his own life. The cause of Christ, His Church, His truth, and His glory were of greater value to Stephen than life itself. Stephen was gracious to the end, ever truthful, gentle, forgiving, and self-sacrificing.
Our great God graciously overrules all things for the good of His elect and the glory of His name. The stoning of Stephen, though it was a terrible act of barbaric cruelty and sin, was best, the very best thing that could have happened on that day. God was in total control of the situation. If Saul had not been there, Stephen would not have prayed for him. If Stephen had not prayed, Saul would have never preached. Even the evil performed by men and devils is good for God’s elect, and shall bring praise to His name (Psalm 76:10; Proverbs 12:21; 16:7; Romans 8:28; 1 Peter 3:12-13).
When the time comes, The Lord God gives His people grace to die well. Those who die in the arms of Christ, who die in faith, die well. What God did for Stephen, He will do essentially for all who trust Christ. Stephen died, being full of the Holy Spirit, with his heart fixed on Christ, looking up steadfastly into heaven. He died without a care in the world, trusting his sovereign Substitute, calling on the name of God. He saw heaven opened! He saw the glory of God! He saw the Lord Jesus standing in the place of power to receive him! He died without any malice in his heart! Really, he did not die at all (John 11:25-26). He simply dropped the body of death. He fell asleep in the arms of Christ and woke up in glory, in life! — Blessed Savior, give me grace so to live and so to die!