RPM, Volume 18, Number 52, December 18 to December 24, 2016

Two Things Every Christian Must Know

Acts 7:54-60

By Kevin DeYoung

It is really a joy to be here. I count Ligon a dear friend and a mentor in many ways and have just learned much from him and he has given me the gift this week of perhaps his most valuable resource, at least his scarcest, which is his time, so thank you, brother, for the time we could spend. And to be speaking at RTS and now to get to be here with you all at this church, which, I know my brother here has shepherded so well and loved so dearly, is a real privilege. I have never been to Jackson, Mississippi. I have driven through on a couple of occasions but have not been to RTS, so this is a treat for me. Not entirely at all but not least of all because it may be snowing in Michigan I am told right now - that's not an exaggeration! And when I flew in, on the way from the airport to the hotel, I had Chick-fil-A. We don't have any of those in Michigan. Isn't that amazing? And I'm told that whoever is bringing me, I think Kevin is, back to the hotel tonight that we might be able to find me a Krispy Kreme because I need those also. So I am already feeling loved and feeling your hospitality!

And after giving three lectures on preaching and some Q & A times on busyness and on ministry, it feels very good to be able to open the Scriptures with you and preach and together exalt in the good news of the Gospel that we find in God's Word. So I invite you to turn in your Bibles - I believe it's also on the back of your bulletins - to Acts chapter 7. I will be reading from verses 54 through the end of the chapter. Acts chapter 7 verses 54 through 60, and before we read, let's ask for God's help.

Our gracious heavenly Father, what a privilege that we can call on You as our Father and we ask now that You would be so gracious, through Your Spirit, to open Your most hallowed lips and speak to us. We do not want to be gathered for wasted religious activity, but we have come here that we might hear a word from You. And so speak to each one of us through this Word which You have inspired and give us ears to hear and minds to understand, wills to obey, hearts to believe. We pray in Jesus' name, amen.

Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him (that is, Stephen). 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. And he said, "Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God." But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. 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. And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." 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.

Two Realities: Christians will have Enemies, and Christians must love their Enemies

There are two difficult realities you must know and you must accept if you are to live faithfully as Christians in a fallen world. Two realities you must embrace, accept, and understand. Number one - you will have enemies. And number two - you must love those enemies. Both of these things are taught clearly by the Lord Jesus. Matthew chapter 5 - "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy,' but I say to you, 'Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.'" And also Matthew chapter 10 - "Brother will deliver brother over to death and the father his child and children will rise against parents and have them put to death and you will be hated by all for my name's sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved." Accepting either one of these truths is difficult enough - you will have enemies; you must love your enemies - but someone, perhaps simply in their natural state, may be able to do one or the other but embracing both of them takes a unique work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Christian.

One risk: Eagerness to fight, but no compassion for enemies

Some people can accept that they will have enemies. This may be because of your personality or your upbringing or any number of circumstances because you're the sort of person, you understand, look, I know - people may hate me, and prepare for the worst, and you're ready for battle. You've never met a hill that wasn't worth dying on and you have no problem with people thinking ill of you. In fact, you wear it as a badge of honor. "Why do you think I'm so intimidating?" you say to people in a very intimidating way. And so you have no problem. In fact, it confirms in your mind you're on the right track when you accumulate opponents and you are prepared for enemies. But in those people there is often little of the demeanor that wants to love those enemies and you can always be in battle mode and have no interest in forgiving enemies or praying for them or wanting your spiritual well-being. It is possible that you exhibit all sorts of courage and no compassion.

Another risk: lots of compassion and no courage

Well let's flip that because many people are on the opposite end of the spectrum. By virtue of their upbringing or their parents or their personality or all manner of things and they believe in love with all their hearts and they know they want to turn the other cheek and they want to emphasize the positive and they care deeply for the feelings and hurts of others and above all else they just want to get along. And so they find a way to minimize every offense, avoid every conflict. They are not looking for a hill to die on; they are looking for common ground wherever they can find it, even if it's just a little sliver, just a little island; they will find it. They are very prepared for love but they may not have a fully Biblical robust view of love. Many people today equate love with unconditional affirmation. "If you do not affirm everything about me, if you do not willingly approve of everything that I am and all the choices that I make, how can you say that you love me?" And anyone who's a parent understands that that would be disastrous love. "You want to bathe with toasters? Fine! That won't bother us! You want to play in the middle of the road?" That's not love; that's neglect! And so these people are always into building bridges. They have no stomach for upsetting people. And these folks exhibit lots of compassion and no courage.

I. We will have enemies and those who hate us

So to do one or the other is quite possible, but to do both, well that takes a profound work of the Spirit to understand that in this life you will have enemies and God has called you to love those enemies. We see both realities here in the martyrdom of Stephen. We see enemies. They hated Stephen. I mean, they really hated him. Not just the kind of, well, I'm upset or I'm disappointed or - I was going to insert an illustration here about either Ole Miss defeating Mississippi State or vice versa but people told me, "Don't even go there." Because then you'd be angry at me! So not that kind of angry; I mean exploding with rage. The Greek phrase here is, "dieprionto tais kardiais autwn." You hear the word, "kardias" - like "cardiac" or heart. "Diaprionto" means to "rip or to saw in two." It's as if their hearts were exploding with rage. You see here the typical expressions in the ancient world of rage. They grind their teeth at him. We don't typically do this so it seems odd. What do they do? Do they just go - (teeth grinding) - to them? But they really shuffle their mouth and their teeth in a grimace and an absolute rage towards Stephen. And why did they hate him? You might think, "Well this is unusual. They hated Stephen because he spoke so strongly to them." This is coming at the end of Acts chapter 7, the end of Stephen's famous sermon, and you see in verses 51 to 53 the conclusion to his sermon is quite in your face about their sins. So we might think, "Well that's just simply Stephen and he was called and he was one of the early leaders in the church and it's to be expected."

He spoke strongly

But when you look more carefully, you realize that their reasons for hating Stephen are the same reasons that people may hate you or me. Look for example, number one. They hate him because he spoke strongly. Look at verse 51. This is some conclusion to a sermon. "You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law and delivered by angels and did not keep it." He spoke very strongly to them. Their reaction may have been different if he had finished by saying as our culture teaches us to speak, "Now in conclusion, I just want to bring up a few points. I could be wrong about this. It's just my way of seeing things. There's a few - I'm not saying they're problems, they're growth edges. They're growth edges. There are just some things, maybe some room for improvement. Maybe you could be more responsive to God - it's just my opinion!" That's not what he said at all! That's how the world wants us to speak - no conviction, just feelings; no truth, just thoughts; no virtue, just values. But this was a time for bold proclamation and that's what Stephen did. You remember, of course, what it was about Jesus' preaching that the crowds found so surprising? Not ultimately His intelligence or His ability to tell a tale or a story, but it was His authority. This is what people even today either love or loathe in preaching is it has authority, certainty to it. They did not like Stephen speaking so strongly to them.

He spoke of their sin

And then second, they did not like Stephen speaking of their sin. His whole sermon was a recollection of their history that was marked with rebellion and being on the wrong side of God's ways from Joseph and their betrayal to the prophets and Moses and how they mistreated God's anointed. They were stiff-necked, hard of hearing, always resisting the Holy Spirit. That's who they had been. That's who they were. And so that's what Stephen called them. He had the audacity to call out their sin. You know why most people don't follow the Lord or why they fall away from the Lord? Yes, some people have very genuine intellectual objection. Some people are maybe hurt by the church or perceived to be hurt by the church. Some people have very emotional angst or suffering that is hard to comprehend. All of that is very real. But more often than not, my experience in pastoral ministry is that people do not want to follow the Lord because people simply want to follow their own way. People ask me sometimes, "Well you're near a university and what are the big issues for college students?" Well the big issues are they would rather do what they want to do on Friday or Saturday than follow the Lord Jesus Christ. This is what they want to do. They don't want another lord in their life. That's how it's always been. That's what it was for the people in Israel.

There's a whole history among different philosophers and philosophies that's coming up with all sorts of strange and aberrant ideas in order to justify a certain way of living. Now I understand that sometimes people have very serious questions and we don't want to minimize that, but it's also true that on many issues in certain hearts it does not matter how soft you are, how many caveats you make, how much affirmation you put around the edges - if you call something sin that is sin that people do not want to know as sin, now I'm not just talking about other people's sins but our sins, we get enraged. "Well this is not what we want to hear. We want to hear a message about how God is our God and how He will wipe out our - but you're telling us about a God who's angry at our sin." They didn't like Stephen; they hated Stephen. He spoke strongly. He spoke of their sin.

He spoke of the Savior

And then notice, third, he spoke of the Savior. They hated Stephen because he called out their sin, but they killed Stephen because he called on the Son of Man. You see that in verses 56 through 58. He said, "Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God." And it's at that moment that they cried out with a loud voice, stopped their ears, rushed together, came out to him and grabbed their stones to kill him. It might have been different if he had simply affirmed Jesus as a nice prophet or a wonder worker or a miracle man, but he claimed to see Jesus at the right hand of God, at the power of place and privilege, as the one who was the Messiah and the divine Son of Man. They didn't want this sort of Jesus.

A Modern Day Parallel

That's not terribly unlike today. People have a very positive view about Jesus all over the country. "I like Jesus. I'm pro-Jesus." But what kind of Jesus? Jesus often of our own creation, not a Jesus who might confront us. Not a Jesus who says you have sins and you need a Savior. Well here they did not like this divine, exalted Christ, this unique one. And so they killed Him. Even though the law, their law, spoke against such deeds, even though they were not permitted under Roman law to execute capital punishment, yet they did. Here they are saying, "You do not follow the law." And then they go and they violate it. When people are absolutely enmeshed in implacable rage, do not expect them to be consistent. They were not interested in consistency; they were interested in killing Stephen. He had enemies.

Do you have enemies? Now we don't have enemies, most of us, in the same way, praise the Lord, that Stephen did. But you know Paul told Timothy anyone who desires to follow Christ Jesus in this life will be persecuted. Now let's put that in a broad category. Let's not kid ourselves that we are persecuted like other people around the world. Let's just put it simply. Does being a Christian cost us anything? Is anyone ever upset? It's not about going out there and saying, "I loved that sermon. The pastor told us to go tick people off!" No. I always tell people if everyone hates you, you've got a problem. If everyone loves you, it may be a problem. It may not be that you're so loving; it may be that you just have found the ability to be a shape-shifter and know exactly what people want to hear and what to expect. Stephen had enemies. If we follow Christ long enough and consistently enough we will accumulate some as well.

II. We must love these enemies

But here's the second point. We must love these enemies. There is no doubt that Stephen loved his enemies. It doesn't mean that he was happy about it or he was eager to suffer or he didn't want justice. But we know that he loved them because look at verse 60. He prayed for them. To pray for someone and desire their spiritual well-being is a supreme act of love. Stephen wants them to receive the mercy that they did not show himself. That's love. Like Jesus prayed, "Father, forgive them. They do not know what they do." Where does this kind of love come from? Everyone wants love. Those great philosophers who said, "Love, love, love - all you need is love. All you need is love; love is all you need." It's really fine poetry. Love. Everyone is for love. We wax eloquent about this love. But listen, even in the church sometimes we try to take a shortcut and we don't go through all of the theological power that makes this of love possible. But sometimes we think, "Well, I'll go to church and I'll just be a better person and I'll get my kids on the moral track." And your interest in Christianity is just kind of a way to become a better person - and to love.

But that's not how it works. You don't become this kind of person with this kind of love in your dying moment without a whole theological substructure that leads to this explosion and overflow of love. You see this in Stephen. Stephen, verse 55, was "full of the Holy Spirit." You see that what he had came from this sight of the glory of God and the Son of Man. I gave you three reasons why they hated Stephen; let me give you three quick reasons why Stephen could love them even though they hated.

He could love his enemies because he knew God would vindicate him

Number one - he could love them because he knew God would vindicate him. You see here this language of the Son of Man. This is one of three occurrences outside of the gospels and the only place outside the gospels to use this exact phrase, "the Son of Man." Now some of us may think, "Oh yeah, Jesus was the Son of God, He was divine, and He was the Son of Man, He was human." But actually this phrase means the opposite. "Son of Man" was a divine title. It came from Daniel chapter 7 in this vision that Daniel had that one like a Son of Man approaches the Ancient of Days and the Ancient of Days is clearly God and yet the Son of Man receives authority and power and dominion as one who is equally God. Already there in Daniel 7 we begin to see that this God who is one is also multiple persons. The Son of Man was divine, Messianic language. And so that's why they were furious with him and that's why Stephen could love them. He was able to love his enemies and forgo his immediate claims of justice because he knew in the end One was coming in the clouds who would write every wrong as the Son of Man just as Jesus said at His trial that the Son of Man would come on the clouds in glory.

Let me show you what I mean. Let me connect these dots. 1 Peter chapter 2:21-23 - "For to this you have been called because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return. When he suffered, he did not threaten but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly." Do you see the connection? How did Jesus, when reviled, when people hated Him, when they mocked Him, how did He not turn around and do the very same thing? Peter says because "He entrusted Himself to the One who judges justly." In other words, Stephen, just like Jesus, understood that, "Though you may have concluded all of this about me and you hate me and you despise me, you are not the one to finally judge me." And there is coming One, Stephen knew, who would vindicate him and these charges. This is why paradoxically you cannot be a fully loving person unless you believe in a God of wrath. As the argument in Romans chapter 12 - that you can forgive your enemies because you leave room for the wrath of God. To forgive someone is to forgo the justice that you deserve. Everything in you that says, "Well you should have treated me better. You owe me better. You need to make it up to me." And that may be absolutely right. And the only way to forgive is to know that those sins committed against you will either be paid for in hell or have been paid for already on the cross. And so the God of justice will not let sins go unpunished. They will be punished in eternity or on the cross. And so Stephen here knows that the Son of Man will vindicate him so he does not need to vindicate himself.

He could love his enemies because he knew God was glorious

Second, he knew God was glorious. He could love his enemies because he knew God was glorious. You get this stunning picture here of Stephen gazing into heaven at the glory of God. Earlier it says his face was like an angel. There apparently was something Stephen was seeing so amazing that his face was transfixed and transfigured as he gazed into heaven to see this glory. Now we cannot be sure but I imagine that one of the reasons that Stephen could pray for his enemies here is because he knew what they were missing. He could see the glory that they did not know. He could see the beauty of the Son of Man at the right hand of God that they did not grasp. And so I think moved by love he prayed for them. Maybe we do not want what is best for our enemies because we ourselves do not have any idea of how unimaginably best it is. If we were to see the glory, maybe we would pray, "Oh Lord," for our enemies, "I want them to know what I know and experience the joy that I experience and see what I see. And so Lord, forgive them!" And so Stephen prayed, knowing that God was glorious.

He knew God's Son was not to be trifled with and that these people were in need of mercy

And then third, he knew God's Son was not to be trifled with and he knew that these people were in need of mercy. Do you notice something peculiar about verses 55 and 56? You know the Apostles Creed, I imagine, where it says that" Jesus ascended into heaven, seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty" - seated. Verse 55 and verse 56, Stephen sees Jesus standing. Twice it says it. It's not just a misprint. It's not just a coincidence. He's standing! Why is the Lord Jesus standing when everywhere else in Scripture and in the creed confesses that He is seated? I think that He is standing because He is rising to receive Stephen's testimony and to be his advocate. It is in the same vain as standing to judge those who would trample on the chosen one. In short, Jesus is rising from His throne to come to Stephen's defense, to receive his prayer, and to vindicate his name. Stephen could love his enemies because he knew the glory of God, the vindication of God, and he knew that the Lord Jesus Christ that they were persecuting was not to be trifled with.

Some of us have such a low view of Christ that we think that when we stand before Him we will be able to sort of just joke our way through or maybe we'll talk about who our parents are or where we went to church and it will be just a very light matter. Well it will not be. If we do not belong to Him - Revelation 22 verse 12 - Jesus says, "Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me to repay everyone for what he has done." Jesus will not consider our snarky attitude or our apathy or our disobedience or unbelief a light thing when the Son of Man rises from His throne. And so I believe Stephen understood and he saw the Son of Man standing and he said, "Oh Lord, have mercy on them. May they not have to face Your tribunal without the covering of Your blood" because he knew how glorious God was, he knew that God would vindicate him, and he knew that this Son of Man was not to be trifled with.

Jesus: the Great Dividing Line

After this point in the book of Acts we see a dividing line. The church is scattered. We see that the church will branch off into the Gentiles and we will see division between Judaism and Christianity. Persecution will break out, the church will be scattered into new regions, and the dividing line is Jesus. The dividing line is always Jesus. People say, "Well I like Jesus but I don't like the church or I don't like the Bible or I don't like these Christians." At the bottom it comes down to Jesus. And are you prepared, am I prepared, that some people may consider debased what you deem to be exalted? Some people will think lame what we know to be lovely. We are not ready to be Christians in this world until we are prepared that some people will despise what we find most precious. The dividing line will be Jesus.

And what's remarkable here is the way in which Stephen is following in the footsteps of Christ. We don't have time but there's all sorts of parallels of Jesus at His trial and what Jesus said, except here's one striking difference - you remember Christ, at the end, cries out, "Father, forgive them. They know not what they do." Or, "Father, in Your hands I commit My Spirit." And now Stephen cries out, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." He's now speaking to the Lord Jesus, seeing the exalted Lord Jesus at the right hand of God the Father. And this is what so angered them, that he is daring to present this Christ in such an exalted place. And so they hated him. And it is the dividing line, it was the dividing line, it is always the point of division - the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Will you call on Him as Lord whether you are a child or a student or a seeker or a longtime member or slightly apathetic or a little bit board? It is always the same issue - will we know Him as Savior and as Lord?

Good News of Hope

And here's the good news, of course. If you or ones you love are on the wrong side of this divide, there's hope, because if we could continue in Acts you would see the most remarkable answer to Stephen's prayer. When Stephen prays, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them. Lord, have mercy. Lord, save. Lord, forgive" and it's not by coincidence that we are told that there is a young man there named Saul. And we know that Stephen's prayer was answered at least in one person that day because it would not be long after this when we would see Saul transformed and converted by the grace of God, understanding that this Christ whom he persecuted in fact was and is the Christ, the Savior, the Lord. And Paul who hated his enemies would become the hated and would learn to love those who despised him and his Christ.

Let us pray.

Father, however we need to hear this in our context - as a student, as a retiree, as a mom, a dad, a worker, someone in medicine, law, politics, education - if we have our eyes opened and we walk with You, we will have people who don't like it and don't like us. Give us courage and give us compassion. It is not an option that we revile when reviled. It is not an option that we become cowards in the face of cultural resistance. So we look to Christ, not only that we may emulate Him but that we may worship Him that we may be forgiven, saved, because He, though hated, though we were His enemies, love us. Thank you. It's in His name we pray. Amen.

And now may the God of peace who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus Christ, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing His will and may He work in us what is pleasing to Him, through Jesus Christ our Lord now and forevermore. Amen.

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