This blog post comes out of a sermon I preached on 7/25/2021 at First Baptist Church Spring Hope.-Jeremy Bell
When is the last time you ever heard a sermon about dying well as a Christian? The chances are probably never, and I find this extremely odd. If the gospel is to be at the center of our lives, then, shouldn’t it be at the center for how we die faithfully as God’s children? Yet, this topic is dead silent in the church. I want to remedy this silence, and teach you through the martyrdom of Stephen how to die as a Christian.
Here is the main point I want you to take away: Dying gives us an opportunity to witness about the hope we have in Christ.
A Theology of Death
Before we can tackle this topic appropriately, we must first have a biblical view of death, which I find many people lack. First, death is not natural to God’s created order. God created a world that did not include sin and sin’s consequence, death (Genesis 1 & 2). Second, God did, however, create a world where death could come into existence if humanity sinned against God (Genesis 2:16-17). When Adam and Eve disobeyed God by eating the fruit from the forbidden tree, their bodies began to die, and death spread to all people (Romans 5:12). No matter how advanced modern medicine becomes, everyone is going to die.
Third, the unnaturalness of death causes us to have various reactions to it. Some people just ignore it. Others might fear it. Maybe we mock it. Culture has made it into a human rights issue.
The question remains: How should Christians approach death? Now, we need to be clear that this is a martyr context, but I think the model we see in Stephen applies on a broader level as Christians experience their deaths. I want to show you how the gospel shapes our view of death by looking at the martyrdom of Stephen.
54 Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him. 55 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. 56 And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” 57 But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. 58 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. 59 And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 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.
First, we set our sights on Jesus Christ in the face of death.
Since we have discovered that death is a consequence of sin, we also believe that through Christ’s sacrificial death we have been forgiven of sin and thus, death has lost its sting. Through Christ’s resurrection, death has been defeated. When we think about death as Christians, we think about it through the mental framework of Jesus Christ the conquering King. In other words, we look to Christ because he has redefined the meaning of death for his children.
“When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: ‘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
When Stephen is about to be stoned, and he sees the rage in the eyes of his opposition, we see these words, “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” (Acts 7:55) The Holy Spirit’s power came to Stephen in the midst of his impending death, just like those who are his children today. Thus, the Holy Spirit gives you the power to look to Christ in the face of your death.
Stephen finds Holy Spirit provided comfort in this tragic moment, and I believe Christ still comforts his people when they are experiencing the dying process by his Spirit. Stephen says, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” This Son of Man language comes directly out of Daniel. Daniel prophesied, “I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed” (Daniel 7:14-15, emphasis added).
We look to Christ in our dying because our hope rests securely in his work. In other words, we look to Christ in the midst of dying knowing where our hope comes from and the security of our eternity with him. “Where does my hope come from?” the Psalmist asks. It comes from the Lord (Psalm 121:1-2). This may be thought of as an internal perspective to how we die as Christians.
As we set our sights on Jesus in the dying process we have an opportunity to show the world our witness and faith and hope in Christ. That’s the second way we die as Christians.
Second, death gives us an opportunity to share our hope in Christ with others.
As we are fixing our eyes on Christ in death, our focus on Christ will show the world the goodness of the gospel. Out of our hope for Jesus, the world will see our faith on display. This is exactly what we see in Stephen’s stoning.
The leaders cast him out of the city and stone him after laying their robes at the feet of Saul (Acts 7:58). Now, they set their garments down so that they could have more range of motion to cast these stones at him because their intentions were to kill him. Think of the suffering Stephen is experiencing. This would have been a prolonged event in which he would have felt extreme pain. Verses 59-60 read:
59 And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 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.
During his death, he shared the hope he had in Christ. He asked God to forgive them and not to judge them. To overlook this sin, which Christ has already done through the cross and resurrection. His death displays an opportunity to share Christ at the end of this life.
Like Stephen, we must reveal our faith and hope in Christ by faithfully dying while clinging to Jesus. Stephen pointed out to his attackers the goodness, mercy, and grace of God through Christ. The way we handle death through a gospel lens points our family, the church, and the culture to the greatness of God’s sacrifice through his Son, Jesus Christ. For the Christian, death is not something to be feared, but rather allows our faith in Jesus to be featured.
Brothers and sisters, death has lost its sting because of Christ. Death is a doorway for the believer to an eternal life founded in Jesus Christ. We look at death like sleep because one day we will be raised from the dead like Christ. We will live again and we will reside on the new earth. Until that day, dying gives us an opportunity to witness about the hope we have in Christ.
Do you have hope in Christ?
I want to conclude by showing you one more figure in this narrative: Saul. Saul watched this take place and approved of its practice. This Saul would one day become the Apostle Paul. One day this Saul would meet Jesus, and his life would also drastically change (Acts 9). He would follow Christ and become one of the greatest missionaries this world has ever known. I think the image of Stephen’s stoning would stay with Paul forever, and I believe that through Stephen’s witness, Paul saw what it looks like to die well as a Christian. Paul would also be killed for his faith. Yet, like Stephen his death was an opportunity to preach the life giving truth of Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior.
For those who may not believe in Christ reading this post, I want you to know that God’s grace is bigger than any sin–even the approval of murder. God’s love is stronger than any rebellious person could fathom. God is bigger. God’s love is greater. God’s grace is stronger than you, a lost person, can withstand. So, repent of your sin, turn to Jesus, and one day die with confidence and hope knowing that death’s sting has been obliterated, and embrace the eternal life that is to come through the work of Jesus Christ.
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