Dealing With Persecution – Pastor Roger Rohde, May 14, 2017

Dealing with Persecution

Acts 7:54-60

            We live in a world and a nation in which God and His Word are frequently disregarded and man’s sinful desires are the basis of many decisions. People within the Christian Church are pointing the finger at the people of the world and blaming them for society becoming more ungodly. Yet, I must tell you that as I studied this text and reflected upon God’s call to each one of us as Christians, I see the greater problem not out there but in here.

People in the church wonder why the Christian Church doesn’t grow today as it did in the Book of Acts. After all the same God governs all things and the same Biblical teachings are being taught today as they were in the days of Acts. So why is Christianity not expanding today as it did in Acts? Is the world more corrupt and evil today than it was back then? At the time of the growth of the early Christian Church in Acts, Christians were undergoing great persecution for their Christian faith, including being burned as human torches.

Pondering this, these words of Jesus came to my mind: “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye” (Matthew 7:3)? As we look at today’s text we see that the Christian Church is not growing today as it did in Acts not because of greater wickedness in the world, but because of lack of spiritual commitment by Christians. Today’s text leads us to see the heart of a Christian back then and how he was committed to share God’s Word with others in spite of the persecution he would undergo for sharing the Christian faith.

In our text we see the first martyr of the Christian Church, Stephen. He is known as the first Christian martyr, but by no means the last. Most of original disciples were martyred for their faith in Christ. Paul was killed for the faith he shared. To this day in other lands people are losing their lives for the sake of Christ. What the Christian Church needs from her members in the United States is a greater commitment to Christ as found in the life of Stephen.

Stephen dealt with persecution because he was concerned about sharing God’s Truth. Our text starts out by saying, “When they heard this.” It is referring to the people who heard God’s Truth from Stephen. They were infuriated by what Stephen shared with them. The word he shared was the sinfulness of man’s heart in the light of God’s Law and the message of salvation through Jesus’ death and resurrection. Stephen did not water down the Word of God to fit the social climate of the world in his day. He called sin, sin – a violation of God’s will that can lead to everlasting punishment in hell. He, also, clearly spoke of faith in Christ as the only way to heaven.

Do we find this type of commitment to proclaiming the Word of God in the Christian Church today? Instead of believing that God’s Word will change hearts and lives, people in the church think that the church would better grow by softening God’s Law and being more tolerable and loving. The changing of God’s Word and making it more acceptable to the way people want to live their lives does not magnify the greatness of God’s love but causes it to be lost. The fullness of God’s love is seen in the reality of man’s sin. Paul wrote: “God demonstrates His own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

For man to appreciate Christ’s love, he first needs to see the cross as a symbol of God’s Law. “Jesus was asked: ‘What is the greatest commandment in the Law?’ He replied: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’… And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:37, 39).’” In other words, the cross symbolizes God’s Law. The longer vertical bar represents the first three commandments as they speak of our relationship with God. Commandments 4-10 are represented by the smaller horizontal bar which deals with our relationship to our fellowman. God’s Law stands as Jesus dies upon the cross to pay for our sins. He did not soften the Law, but showed His love by paying the debt of our sin with His own life.

Dealing with persecution starts as the Christian Church does not change God’s Law to fit society, but upholds God’s Law. God’s love in Christ will only be seen clearly if we maintain the truth of God’s Law and our violation of it. His blood bought sacrifice on the cross grants us reconciliation with Him and nothing else.

Stephen dealt with persecution as he was “full of the Holy Spirit.” This means that Stephen’s life was focused on accomplishing the will of God and not fulfilling his own desires.

A problem in the Christian Church today is that people want to sit comfortably in the pew and have their desires fulfilled. They are interested in being served according to their wishes rather than serving by bringing the message of Christ to others.

The strength of the early Christian Church is found in the fact that people within the church followed the Holy Spirit not the desires of their flesh. The Apostle Paul recognized this as he prayed for the church: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in Him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15:13).

We see the importance of this hope as Stephen dealt with persecution by setting his sights on heaven. Spirit-driven people like Stephen “look up steadfastly to heaven.” This is not suggesting we have our noses in the air and snob people. No, it speaks to what our goal in life is to be. We will deal with persecution in God-pleasing fashion not by trying to avoid it, but by sharing and living our Christian faith even when persecution comes. As Jesus was talking about people witnessing for Him, He said: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One Who can destroy body and soul in hell” (Matthew 10:28). Most church going people today would rather preserve themselves from being ridiculed in the world than sharing the Christian faith and undergoing persecution.

Stephen was a faithful servant for Christ’s kingdom because he looked toward heaven and beheld what was ultimately important in life. Beholding the glory of God in heaven meant more to him than being acknowledged and highly regarded by men. While stones flew all around him, struck his body and brought him severe pain, he knew that enduring such pain for sharing the message of Christ could not compare to the glory of Christ he would behold in heaven.

Remember this when persecution is at your doorstep because of your Christian witness. Be who Christ made you to be and not what people want you to be. Yes, people may mistreat you or shun you as you share God’s Truth, but never forsake the glory of the Lord by seeking to avoid persecution in this life. As the writer to Hebrews put it: “Fix your eyes on Jesus, the Author and perfecter of your faith, Who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider Him Who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you may not grow weary and lose heart” (Hebrews 12:2). Look not to the troubles you may encounter as you live the Christian faith, but focus on what glory belongs to you because of Christ, and what glory will be given God as you faithfully live your life for Christ.

How Stephen dealt with persecution is also epitomized by two Christian prayers. In prayer Stephen entrusted himself to the Lord’s care. Stephen prayed: “Jesus, receive my spirit.” In this prayer Stephen is not asking for the stones to stop flying. He does not pray his witnessing for Christ to become easier. In essence Stephen is praying that he will remain faithful to God and not deny Him in this time of persecution. Stephen entrusted the care of his life to Christ as he witnessed.

Do we entrust ourselves to Christ, praying that we will be faithful vessels of bringing the sweet message of the Gospel to others through our words and actions?

In Stephen’s second prayer we see his faith as he remained concerned for the spiritual welfare of those who were persecuting him. Stephen prayed: “Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.” It sounds similar to the prayer Jesus spoke from the cross: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing”

(Luke 23:34).

To deal with persecution in godly fashion a person always needs to be more concerned about the spiritual state of others rather than his own physical status. Stephen was willing to die for the sake of the Gospel that others might live because of the Gospel. Whenever one looks at those who were martyred or faithful witnesses to Jesus Christ, you will see people more concerned about others than themselves. They lived sacrificially in order to bring the Gospel to others, and they did not begrudge persecution for the sake of the Gospel.

When we look at the spiritual and moral decay of the world today, who is responsible for it? Is it the people who live in darkness and know not the Light, or is it the people who have the Light and yet do not share that Light because of their fear of persecution? The question for us today as God’s people is not whether Christians will be persecuted, but whether we are willing to be persecuted for the sake of the Gospel.

Some might think that Stephen was a foolish man to continue to proclaim the Gospel unto death. But did you notice the spiritual blessing that came from the persecution he encountered. Our text speaks of a man named Saul who was witness to and condoned the stoning of Stephen.   Thirty years after Stephen’s stoning, this man became known as Paul, one of the world’s greatest missionaries for Christ. Stephen’s commitment to sharing the Gospel under persecution had an impact on Saul who as Paul has impacted us through his God-inspired letters found in Scripture.

If the Christian Church is to grow, her people need once again be filled with the Holy Spirit to value eternity more than the things of this life. They need to have as their greatest concern the eternal wellbeing of souls and do everything they can, even encounter persecution, that the Gospel of Christ may be heard and live enriched eternal with His saving grace. Amen.

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