Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth against him. 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 upon 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 prayed, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." And he knelt down and cried with a loud voice, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." And when he had said this, he fell asleep. And Saul was consenting to his death.
The Death of Andrew Rivet
Andrew Rivet was a Frenchman who was born in 1573 and spent most of his life in Holland as professor of theology at the University of Leyden. He was a great theologian and full of the Holy Spirit and faith, as Luke says of Stephen (Acts 6:5). On Christmas Day 1650, when he was 77 years old, he preached a sermon, and was immediately afterwards taken ill with a severe disease of the abdomen. He died on January 7, 1651.
He had been a devout man of God and a productive scholar for the kingdom for over 50 years. But when he came to die, God—in a very real sense—did more for him in those last few days of life than in all the years before. Listen to what he said just before he died:
The sense of divine favor increases in me every moment. My pains are tolerable, and my joys inestimable. I am no more vexed with earthly cares. I remember when any new book came out, how earnestly I have longed after it—but now all that is but dust. You are my all, O Lord; my good is to approach to you. O what a library I have in God, in whom are all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge! You are the teacher of spirits—I have learned more divinity in these ten days that you have come to visit me, than I did in fifty years before. (Archibald Alexander, Thoughts on Religious Experience, London: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1967, p. 207)
The hour of death became the servant of the saint—his teacher, his sanctifier, the kindler of his worship.
The Death of Zeke Rudolph
I remember the death of Zeke Rudolph. He was in Noël's class at Wheaton one year behind me. He was 5' 10" and 165 pounds—but he had Multiple Sclerosis. His father was my faculty adviser, Erwin Rudolph. Zeke died in August 1969, three months after graduation. The thing I remember most vividly from what Dr. Rudolph wrote about Zeke's dying was this sentence: Near the end he called death sweet names. Sweet names! Death became a servant with sweet names.
Making Clear the Biblical View of Death
Now let's be very clear about a biblical truth: Death is an enemy. It is not romantic or glamorous or heroic. Death is an enemy! "Christ must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death" (1 Corinthians 15:25–26). We were not created by God to die. Death is a curse and an enemy that came into the world through sin (Romans 5:12).
A Conquered Enemy
But while we are avoiding any simplistic, naïve, romantic images of death, let us believe with all our hearts and all our minds and all our might the great truth of our Christian faith: "Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ" (1 Corinthians 15:54–57).
Made to Serve the Christian
And not only the victory, but more than victory. "Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? . . . No! In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death nor life . . . will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 8:35–39).
We are more than conquerors over death through Christ. God gives us the victory over death. But more than victory. Death is defeated by Jesus. He is bound in the chains of resurrection power so that he cannot destroy us. But more than that. More than that! Death is handed over, bound and defeated, as a servant to the church. We are more than conquerors because death is not just defeated and kept from destroying us; it is enslaved and made the servant of God's people.
This is the meaning of 1 Corinthians 3:21–23, "Let no one boast of men. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future, all are yours; and you are Christ's; and Christ is God's." Death is yours the way you are Christ's. And you are Christ's to serve him and glorify him. So death is your servant. The enemy is defeated, bound, enslaved, and delivered into the service of the saints.
So it was not naïve romanticizing when Zeke Rudolph "called death sweet names. It was not immature glamorizing or embellishing of death when Andrew Rivet said that he had learned more truth about God during ten days in the valley of death than in fifty years of study. Defeated death had become their servant. The terrible enemy had become the tutor of heaven. So it is with the enemies of God. Even in their destruction they are made to serve the saints. (See 2 Corinthians 12:7 and 1 Corinthians 5:5 where Satan himself is made the servant of the saints of God!)
Three Ways Death Became Stephen's Servant
I want us to see this and be encouraged by it in the case of Stephen this morning—the first martyr of the Christian church. Stephen died a very horrible death, by stoning. But even here death became Stephen's servant—in at least three ways.
Stephen had just preached a message to the Jewish leaders, and his main point was that the essence of their religion was self-worship, not God-worship. They rejoiced in the work of their own hands not in God (Acts 7:41, 48). When Stephen came to the end of his message, the council was enraged and ground their teeth at him (Acts 7:54).
God's response to Stephen at this moment was exactly the opposite. He filled Stephen with his Holy Spirit (v. 55). This is not exceptional. You can expect God to do this for you if you walk with him. "Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for thou art with me" (Psalm 23:4). God draws near to the dying saint.
1 Peter 4:13 says that when you suffer with Christ "the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you." There is a special grace given to dying Christians. We often wonder: could I endure suffering for Christ in the hour of persecution—or even in the hour of "ordinary" death? The answer is, no, I couldn't, not in myself. But we will not be left to ourselves. There will be extraordinary grace for the extraordinary trial of death. The Spirit of glory and of God will rest upon us.
And when God comes in the hour of our death, he makes the enemy, death, into the servant of his saints.
Notice how it happened with Stephen.
1. By Opening a Window to See Jesus
First, as the enemy death draws near and opens its jaws to consume Stephen, the Holy Spirit in Stephen turns the jaws of death into a window of heaven. And instead of seeing the stomach of hell and the face of Satan, Stephen sees the glory of God and Jesus alive standing at the right hand of God. Verse 55: "But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God."
Do you see how death is stripped of its power here and made the servant of God's servant? It raises its ugly head and threatens to take away from us all the pleasures of bright spring mornings and buds on the trees and warmth on the skin and the colors of fall and the stars in the night sky, but instead it opens the window of heaven and reveals the glory of God. It threatens to take away our most precious relationships, but instead it shows Jesus standing to receive us.
I don't mean that every believer will get the same vision of glory and of Jesus that Stephen got. But I do mean that this is the way the Holy Spirit comforts us when we are dying, and robs death of its power. One way or another he makes death a window to the glory of God and to Jesus. And for those who love Jesus more than anyone and long for the glory of God more than anything the sting of death is gone and the power of death is broken. And whether you are a 77-year-old theologian or a 22-year-old college graduate, you can call death sweet names.
That's the first way that the Holy Spirit makes death serve Stephen: he makes death a window onto the glory of God and the person of Jesus.
2. By Becoming a Doorway to Join Jesus
Second, the Spirit enables Stephen to see through death a place of fellowship in the presence of Jesus. Verse 59: "And as they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, 'Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.'"
In other words, not only did the Holy Spirit turn the hour of death into a revelation of the glory of God and of Jesus, he also showed Stephen that the reason Jesus was standing, and not sitting (as it says in verse 55), was to welcome his servant home. So death serves the dying saint not only as a window to see glory, but also as a doorway to enter glory—not only a window to see Jesus, but also a doorway to join him.
The triumph of the saint over death is the calm and confident prayer, "Jesus, receive my spirit." It is as though you are dying in a small cabin in the woods. The door is death and you are moving toward it inch by inch. As it opens, there is a huge, ravenous wolf with bared fangs and furious eyes. At first you are terrified. But then the Holy Spirit opens your eyes, and behind the wolf you see Jesus shining like the sun. He is standing with his arm extended to you and his face smiling. And hanging tight in his other hand there is a brass chain that leads to an iron collar on the wolf's neck. You hesitate for a moment. But then the Spirit gives you strength, and as you put your foot in the threshold and the mouth of the wolf opens, Jesus flings him with a mighty jerk clear out of sight, and you enter into the presence of the Lord of glory.
That's the second way the Spirit makes death serve the saint. It's not only a window to see Jesus; it's a doorway to be with him for ever.
3. By Becoming an Occasion to Reflect Jesus
Finally, the Spirit makes death serve Stephen by drawing out of him the beauty of Christlikeness in the hour of trial. Verse 60: "And he knelt down and cried with a loud voice, 'Lord, do not hold this sin against them.'"
When Jesus was dying he had said, "Father forgive them, for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34). Death had failed utterly as a curse to destroy the love and holiness of Jesus. And now, because Stephen was filled with the Spirit of Jesus, death fails again.
The devil designs for your death to produce despair and hopelessness and self-pity and resentment and bitterness. But the design of the Holy Spirit is very, very different. He destroys the power of death, and makes death into an occasion for showing the beauty of Christ. "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." A great triumph of Christ-like mercy!
How All Three Connect Together
Now I close by simply pointing out that there is a connection between these three ways that the Holy Spirit (v. 55) transforms death from adversary into servant. And this connection shows that the way to die in the power of the Holy Spirit is also the way to live in the power of the Holy Spirit.
- When the Holy Spirit opens your eyes to behold and to love the glory of God and you see and know that Jesus is alive and triumphant at God's right hand,
- and when the Spirit gives you the will to say, "Jesus, there is no place I would rather be than with you, receive me,"
- then the beauty and the power of Jesus will enter your life and hopelessness and self-pity and resentment and bitterness will be consumed by the presence of Christ and by the hope of glory.
This is the way we die by the power of the Spirit. And this is the way we live by the Spirit. Loving the revelation of God's glory; knowing the triumph of Jesus over all our enemies; trusting ourselves into his welcoming fellowship; and overflowing with his grace to enemies. This is why we seek the fullness of God's Spirit. This is why we are crying out, "Lord, show us your glory."
O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting? The sting of death is sin. And the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God who gives us the victory through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen