Safe in the arms of Jesus,
Safe on His gentle breast;
There by His love o’ershaded,
Sweetly my soul shall rest.
Hark! ’tis the voice of angels
Borne in a song to me,
Over the fields of glory,
Over the jasper sea.
Safe in the arms of Jesus,
Safe on His gentle breast;
There by His love o’ershaded,
Sweetly my soul shall rest.
“Now they which were scattered abroad upon the persecution that arose about Stephen travelled as far as Phenice, and Cyprus, and Antioch, preaching the word to none but unto the Jews only.” ~Acts 11:19
When Stephen was brutally murdered by stoning outside the city walls of Jerusalem, great fear took hold of many believers to the point they fled the Holy City. Such is the nature of persecution, it emboldens those who practice it and scatters those who receive it.
Thinking they were right in rooting out religious opposition, the leaders of Judaism turned with a vengeance upon Christians. And yet, what men meant for evil, God meant to do good. God will make even sin work to advance His cause and His kingdom.
This principle of evil producing good has been part of the experience of God’s people since the Garden of Eden. Satan came to the Garden one day to encourage man to rebel against the Lord. The Satanic suggestion was succumbed to, and much sorrow was produced. The earth was changed. Guilt and sorrow were felt. Pain in childbirth was to be endured. But out of the evil which was done came the manifestation of the great grace of majestic mercy and redemption. Apart from the fall of man, we would never know how high the Lord can lift us up.
As a seventeen-year-old youth, Joseph was sold into slavery. His jealous brothers had thrown him into a pit while they considered his fate. His fearful cries for pity did not find a tender response in their hearts. It is the nature of meanness that when the heart is determined to act badly, tears make it more determined to hurt than to help. The brothers of Joseph were determined to hurt him, and they found a way. They sold him into slavery.
The years passed. In the grace and sovereignty of God, Joseph became a ruler in the land of Egypt. One day his brothers appeared to him without recognizing who he was. Too many years had passed. But Joseph recognized them. What would he do? The Lord had delivered those who had hurt him into his hand. Would Joseph retaliate and inflict a just judicial judgment of hardship upon them? No, Joseph would show his brothers great mercy, realizing that while they meant some things for evil, God meant it all for good.
So it is that every generation of believers, from Adam and Eve, to Joseph and Stephen,
to you and I have to learn the sovereignty of God, and the lessons of this part of the spiritual life. With that in mind we return to the dying moments of Stephen (Acts 7:59-60).
Once more we see deadly stones being thrown, doing their dark deed of destruction.
Once more we want to turn away in horror as we see blood pouring forth from the open wounds inflicted without just cause.
Once more we see the pain on the face of the innocent.
And once more we can listen as Stephen prays for himself and for others. “Lord Jesus,” we hear the Deacon say, “receive my spirit.”
The words are important. The order of the words is important, for Stephen calls upon the “LORD Jesus.” To recognize Jesus as Lord is very significant. It means that the right of Christ to control life is recognized. It is not easy to let someone else give direction. But the Christian wants Christ to come and take charge. To that end, His will is consciously sought.
The right of Christ to reign supreme in the heart is based upon recognition of His supremacy. The Bible teaches that Jesus is superior to all men and all angels. Nature itself obeys His every directive, for the Lordship of Christ is rooted in His divinity. Jesus was in the beginning with the Father (John 1:18). Jesus is not the highest expression of God’s creative acts, but He is very God, the Creator.
Then third, the Lordship of Christ involves a present submission to His authority, which He administers from heaven. It is an awesome thought to apprehend that there is a Man in the heavenlies. He is the resurrected Son of God. One of Hollywood’s more popular movies was Contact, which told the story of American scientist making contact with, and communicating with something from outer space. The search for something in space is not without significance, for there is not just something out there, there is Someone. He is seated in the heavenlies. The Bible speaks of heaven, which means literally, “sky.”
Heaven is the Bible term for God’s home (Psa. 33:13-14; Matt. 6:9).
Heaven is where the throne of God is (Psa. 2:4).
Heaven is the place of God’s glorious presence to which the resurrected Christ has returned (Acts 1:11).
Heaven is the place where the Church militant and the Church triumphant now unites for worship (Heb. 12:22-25).
Heaven is where one day Christ’s people will be with their Saviour forever (John 17:5, 24; 1 Thess. 4:16-17).
Heaven is a place of rest (John 14:2).
Heaven is a city (Heb. 11:10).
Heaven is a country (Heb. 11:16).
Heaven is a fixed geographical location for Paul alludes to the “third heaven” or paradise (2 Cor. 12:2, 4).
A body adapted to heaven’s life awaits all believers (2 Cor. 5:1-8). In that body we shall see the Son (Matt. 5:8; 1 John 3:2).
In heaven there are only perfect relationships free from all the limitations, frustration, and failures that characterize them so well here on earth.
In heaven there is no pain, evil, conflict, or distress. In heaven there is the enjoyment of God.
Life in heaven will never end (Rev. 22:5). The hearts of those in heaven say, “I want this to go on forever.” And it will.
Best of all, heaven is where Jesus resides. The Bible tells us about Christ in heaven.
Sometimes He is seen to be standing, ready to Act (Acts 7:56; Rev. 1:1-16; 14:1).
Sometimes He is seen walking among His people (Rev. 2:1).
Sometimes He can be seen ready to do battle (Rev. 19:11-16).
The most common picture of Jesus is that of Him sitting on the Father’s right hand, not to rest but to rule. It is not an inactive Person that Stephen called upon, but a Person invested with authority to do things. Jesus Himself said that all power in heaven and on earth had been entrusted to Him. Today, Jesus reigns as King of kings and Lord of lords.
There are two spheres of authority in which Christ rules: regal and spiritual. In His regal role, Christ sits as the Messiah to rule over all the spheres of authority that exist: both angelic and human (Matt. 28:18; 1 Pet. 3:22). This means that Christ rules the nations of the earth (Psa. 2:8-9; 110:1-3). Jesus shall rule over the affairs of men until the day comes when all His enemies shall be placed under His feet (Psa. 110:1).
Some theologians take this to mean that one day all the nations of the earth shall become Christian by nature. The eye of flesh finds this hard to believe, but then, who would have thought that 120 men and women would change the Roman world? Who would have thought that a small handful of people without power, money, reputation, or resources would leave a legacy that millions upon millions 2,000 years later lay claim to? The Royal reign of Christ should be recognized.
As Christ reigns sovereign over the nations, so He reigns as the Great High Priest. He serves God the Father and channels grace to His subjects (Psa. 110:4). As Christians, we can take great comfort in all of this, knowing that Christ is “LORD” of all. His court is now in session and will continue until all His enemies are brought to nothing. The greatest enemy, and the last enemy that Christ will conquer is death.
The triumph of Christ over death is found in part by the way it is faced by His followers. It was said of the early Christians, “They die well.” Stephen died well as He called out to the One He knew was alive forever more, his Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.
What Stephen wanted Jesus to do was to receive his Spirit which takes the heart to the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. Since the dawn of recorded history, mankind has believed in the immortality of the soul. Some of the oldest literature of the world comes to us in the Egyptian Book of The Dead. It gives abundant evidence of a belief in immortality. The Great Pyramids, and the many tombs of the Valley of the Kings all testify to the belief in a life after death. If immortality is not true, then all of creation and all of life is an insoluble mystery (cp. John 3:16; 14:2,3; Luke 23:42). For Stephen to pray that His spirit would be received reflected his belief in the immortality of the soul.
The truth of the matter is that every person will live somewhere after death, either in heaven or in hell. The Bible says that even Judas went to his own place (Acts 1:25). Every person has his or her own place to go to. The prayer of Stephen continued as he asked the Lord not to lay “this sin” to the charge of those who were killing him. The specific sin Stephen had in mind was the sin of rejecting the gospel. Once the Lord determines that a people shall be left in spiritual darkness, there is no more hope in time or in eternity. The book of Hebrews warns of this by saying, “Today is the day of salvation. If you hear his voice harden not your heart.”
One reason why Stephen could pray such a prayer is because he realized that the hostility towards him transcended the personal. It was not Stephen as a person that the people of Jerusalem had moved against, but Stephen as the representative of Christ. Had Stephen not spoken plainly against the sins of the religious community, he would have survived. Had Stephen not called members of the Sanhedrin stiff-necked, hard hearted, resisters of the Holy Ghost, betrayers of Christ, murderers of the prophets and violators of the Law,
Stephen would not have been left to die in his own blood with his body broken and his skull crushed. A by-stander that fateful day might have wondered,
Why? Stephen, why are taking such a beating?
Why did you stir up so much trouble?
Why did you not say things that were more pleasing?
The answer is this. The Lord moved Stephen to speak, for He was a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit. It was God who was ultimately speaking to the Sanhedrin. And today, it is still the Lord who speaks through His servants calling a generation to repentance and righteousness.
Since men cannot get to God, they must hurt His representatives in any way they can. That too is the testimony of time, for we read of others who fled from Jerusalem following persecution. And what did they do? Did they keep silent? No, they too preached Jesus Christ and the Lord honored their labors (Acts 11:21). Now finally, from this portion of the Word of God consider the following.
First, Christians can be accused falsely. Even those filled with the Spirit will know the vicious and violent attacks of ungodly religious leaders. Be prepared for it and then be prepared for a blessing to follow (Matt. 5:10-12).
Second, Christians should know their Bibles well. Stephen knew the scriptures, from Genesis to Malachi, and they served him when he needed comfort the most.
Third, in times of spiritual conflict the best defense is a biblical offense that exposes the true condition of the human heart. Issues, not individuals should be the focus of attention. The biggest issue is salvation. The problem with the Jews of Jerusalem is that they were not converted but did not know it. However, after the death of Stephen all the world knew the hideousness of a superficial religion that could show no kindness nor compassion and hated the truth.
Fourth, the Holy Spirit will lead all Christians to give a verbal defense of the faith, and some to die a violent death for the same. Of the latter it is said, “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints.” And Jesus will stand up to greet them saying, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Well done.”
Fifth, speaking the truth may not sound sweet, but it is not contrary to being filled with the Spirit. Many have been taught that to speak out against spiritual corruption in religious leaders is wrong. But it is not wrong, as the life of Stephen illustrates.
Sixth, in the hour of spiritual conflict the heart of evil is clearly revealed by what is said and done (Acts 7:57-58). The religious leaders screamed their scorn and then proceeded to murder a saint.
Seventh, in the hour of spiritual conflict the heart of goodness is revealed by what is said and done. What did Stephen do? He prayed. He called upon the Lord. And the Lord answered his prayer, for in time a young man came to faith. His name was Saul. One day Saul was captured and converted by the Christ he thought he despised so much. If we are grateful that Saul came to Christ, Saul should be grateful that a broken, beaten, and bloodied man prayed for his conversion. Such is the soul of the one who is totally committed to winning others to Christ. May the Lord grant us grace to pray and preach until Jesus comes.