The Heavenly Witness
Rev. Kurt Lantz St. Stephen, Martyr Acts 6:8-7:2a, 51-60
December 26, 2021 Resurrection Lutheran Church St. Catharines, ON
Dear brothers and sisters, hear me (Acts 7:2a),
In the Church calendar we mark the birth of Jesus on December 25 and celebrate it for 12 days until January 06, but the first few days of Christmas are shared with the commemoration of some saints. December 28 is the Feast of the Holy Innocents, those infant boys in Bethlehem whose lives were given for Jesus when Herod had all those 2 years and younger killed in his attempt to destroy the Christ (Matthew 2:13-18). December 27 is the Feast of St. John the Apostle and Evangelist. And today, December 26, is that day made famous in the song about Good King Wenceslas.
The Feast of St. Stephen, the First Martyr, the first to be killed for his witness to Jesus as the Christ, after the death, resurrection, and ascension of our Lord, is given a prime place on the calendar as the first of the saints commemorated after our great Christmas Eve and Day celebrations. The red paraments are not for Christmas, as you well know. White is the liturgical colour for Christmas. Red is the colour for the Holy Spirit, who appeared as tongues of fire on Pentecost, and for the blood of those who were killed for the confession that the Holy Spirit provided for them at the hour of their death.
“Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders among the people” (Acts 6:8) when some of the Hellenistic Jews, for whom Stephen was ordained to serve as a deacon (Acts 6:1-6), rose up to contradict the things he was saying about Jesus of Nazareth being the Messiah. “But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking” (6:10), that is, the Holy Spirit. For Jesus had promised His disciples, “when they bring you to trial and deliver you over, do not be anxious beforehand what you are to say, but say whatever is given you in that hour, for it is not you who speak but the Holy Spirit” (Mark 13:11).
The Holy Spirit bore witness as Stephen spoke from the Scriptures. He retold the salvation history of God’s people through the Old Testament, and he quoted the prophets Amos (5:25-27) and Isaiah (66:1,2) to condemn the religious leaders for the idolatry of offering sacrifices to appease a god, rather than looking with faith to the Righteous One who had come from God to be their Saviour, our Lord Jesus Christ, whose coming in the flesh we have just celebrated.
The Holy Spirit was testifying through Stephen, and his opponents could not counter the grace and wisdom of the Spirit in Stephen’s words and actions. The Holy Spirit testified as the members of the council saw the face of Stephen as the face of an angel, just like Moses’ face shone so that he had to be veiled when He spoke God’s Word to the people (Exodus 34:29-35), and as Jesus’ face shone on the Mount of Transfiguration when the Father spoke from the open heavens and said, “Listen to Him” (Luke 9:35).
And while they ground their teeth at Stephen, “he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:55). And Stephen spoke aloud what the Holy Spirit testified to him. He told them, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (v. 56). So they did what people always do when they cannot win against God. As they killed Zechariah the priest (2 Chronicles 24:21-22), and as they killed the prophets (Matthew 23:37), so they killed Stephen, also. And the Holy Spirit continued to testify, to Stephen; through Stephen to the mob; and through the written account in this Scripture to you. What is His testimony? What is saying to you?
We all must face death as Stephen did. Most people have the time to see it coming. Our end will probably not come with rocks being pelted at our head, but it may come with one stinging blow after another, one medical episode after another, with time for the Holy Spirit to testify to us and to testify through us to those standing by.
I’ve seen it happen. As the pastor at the deathbed, I am not the only one that the Holy Spirit uses to give His testimony. It comes even more powerfully through those who are dying. The family gathered around are focused on them and not on the pastor. I have been able to include in funeral sermons what family members noticed as they watched their loved one breathe their last.
Myrtle went during the Nunc Dimittis: “Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace.” Werner during the Lord’s Prayer: “Deliver us from evil.” These timely deaths underscore the many others where family members were stirred by their loved one’s desire for the pastor to come, to pray, to hear God’s Word, to sing hymns, and then to die in peace. Some even had the opportunity to tell their loved ones clearly, “I want to go home to heaven.”
What will the Holy Spirit testify in your last hour, to you and to those around you? The account of Stephen’s death underscores for us what happens at the precious death of the Lord’s saints (Psalm 116:15). The heavens are opened at the death of God’s children (Acts 7:55), just as they were opened at Jesus’ baptism (Luke 3:21). Through His baptism and your baptism into Him, heaven is open to you. The Holy Spirit revealed it to Stephen and testified through Stephen to the crowd and to you (Acts 7:55-56).
It enraged the crowd who wanted to keep the curtain of the temple in place. They did not want to acknowledge that the death of Jesus had rent that curtain in two from top to bottom (Luke 23:45) and opened up access to God through the blood of Jesus (Hebrews 10:19). The Holy Spirit’s testimony makes it plain and clear that heaven is open to us and death for the Christian is merely the gate to paradise with God.
The Son of Man is standing at the right hand of God in heaven ready to welcome you. Jesus is the Son of Man promised by the prophet Daniel to whom the kingdoms of this world must give way, for He shall reign forever and ever (Daniel 7:13-14). He is standing, risen from the dead, alive and active. He is at the right hand of God, acting as our mediator, interceding for us as He promised, “Whoever confesses Me before men, him will I confess before My Father who is in heaven” (Luke 12:8).
Jesus is the first martyr, the first witness, the last witness, the star witness of the defence. He stands before God to testify that Stephen is righteous, pure, and holy, forgiven by faith in the sacrifice of Christ, the coming Righteous One. Jesus is the heavenly witness who testifies for you. He is our advocate, our defender, giving the irrefutable testimony that you have been washed in Baptism and purified by His body and blood.
As far as defence speeches go, Stephen’s was not very effective. It didn’t exonerate him before the Sanhedrin. It didn’t end up saving his life. He didn’t prove himself innocent. In fact, he pretty much proved the case for the prosecution. He did speak against Moses and the Temple. He spoke against them as the source of forgiveness for sin and access to God. Guilty as charged. Stephen was not a very good witness for himself before the Council.
Stephen was not a very good witness for himself before God either. He did not bring out any evidence of his own good conduct. There was a lot that he could have brought before the court: He was engaged in charity work; he knew the Scriptures; he went to synagogue; he had a good reputation among the people. But he didn’t refer to any of this when he gave his testimony.
He simply recited the evening prayer he learned from his catechism, quoting the same psalm that Jesus quoted from the cross, “Lord, into Your hands I commit my spirit” (Psalm 31:5; Luke 23:46). And he didn’t even get that exactly right. He messed up a little bit, I guess under the pressure of the circumstances. He said, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts 7:59). It is understandable. He had probably been hit in the head a few times by then. He was more than half dead. It was the last words of a man babbling at the point of death.
Or was it the continuing witness of the Holy Spirit, testifying again to Stephen, to the mob, and to you. This Jesus, the Son of Man, standing at the right hand of God, testifying for you, is the LORD Jehovah Himself. He is God into whose nail-scarred hands we commit ourselves. He is the God who is Lord of the living, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the deliverer. He is the one with whom we can lay down in death just as we lay down in our beds and fall asleep to awaken to a new day.
Will the testimony of the Holy Spirit at the time of your death be effective? It is the only thing that can. If you try to testify without Him, you will not succeed at anything. You will only convince yourself of your own guilt and the punishment you deserve for your sins. But if you let the Spirit speak, then the testimony is true and certain and full of divine power. You may not see the full effect of His testimony while you are dying, but you can be sure it is at work.
In his dying moments Stephen did not see the effect of the Spirit’s testimony on the young man named Saul, before whom those stoning him had laid their garments (Acts 7:58), but the Spirit kept on testifying even after Stephen could no longer stand, or speak, or breathe. And then the Spirit became a mighty witness through that man whose life of missionary zeal fills the rest of the Book of the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 9:17ff).
You may not see your loved ones respond with faith to the testimony of the Holy Spirit at your death, but that does not mean it won’t bear fruit. He will continue to testify about Jesus, the Saviour from sin and death. His testimony did not stop with the death of Stephen, and it will not stop with your death either. But you can be sure that at the death of any Christian, the Spirit is at work to bear witness to the saving grace of Jesus that opened heaven for Stephen and that opens it for you. “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”