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Eric Alexander on Stephen's Martyrdom

In his 1981 address at Urbana, Eric Alexander made the following observations about Stephen's martyrdom and the fruit it bore:

We see that Stephen's death was for the glory of God. There are clearly two sides to the fact of Stephen's death. There is on the one hand the wrath and hatred of the people as they gnashed their teeth against him (v. 54). That, I suppose, is the basic physical fact behind Stephen's death, and it issued in their casting him out of the city and stoning him. But there is another side to it. In verse 55 we read that, full of the Holy Spirit, Stephen gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing as his advocate at the right hand of God. And he said, "Look ... I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God" (v. 56).

I really think that was what settled Stephen's death. I do not think it would have been possible for him to come back and live in this world after that. I think that experience spoiled him for earth for ever. He had seen the glory of God. How could a man or woman be satisfied with life here on earth after that? So Stephen cried, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit" (v. 59). That is the fact of his death.

But we cannot leave Stephen without also noticing the fruit of his death. Again this is twofold. It is first the occasion for the outbreak of persecution, led by Saul of Tarsus, whose conscience was clearly inflamed (8:3). And that persecution drove the church out of Jerusalem, to Judea and Samaria. Stephen's sermon drove them out theologically and biblically, and Saul's persecution drove them out physically and geographically. So the martyrdom of Stephen was, in the gracious purpose of God, bearing fruit already. It is not without significance that the very word for witness in the New Testament is the word from which we get our English word martyr. There is a profound cost involved in true and effective witness.

But the other fruit of Stephen's death is even more significant In Acts 7:58 we read, "the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul," and in 8:1, "and Saul was there, giving approval to his death." I would reckon that Saul was there under that spirit-anointed ministry as Stephen preached, and the Word of God stabbed his conscience. However, conviction is a fire which, depending on the wind it catches, may bum into repentance and faith or into resentment and bitterness. Even as Saul was on his way to wreak destruction on the church at Damascus, the heavens opened again, and the Lord Jesus called, "Saul, Saul!" And Saul fell down blinded by the same glory that had drawn Stephen's soul to heaven. And he cried out, "Who are you, Lord?" And he was a fruit of Stephen's death. Think of that. Some might have said of Stephen that his life was prematurely cut off and untimely thrown away. But indeed his life was the fuel which set alight a flame for the glory of God in the ancient world that has no parallel.

I think I would lay down my life if it would produce a life of the caliber of Paul's. Wouldn't you? You see, whatever the hour and whoever the servant, there is a death to be died if we are going to be fruitful for God and for his glory - a death to self, to pride, to our own plans and our own ambitions. "Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die," says Jesus, "it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit." (Jn 12:24 KJV). What a glorious thing to be the kind of life that is fuel to be set alight for the glory of God in our generation, as Stephen's life was fuel to set such a fire in the life of Saul as had never been seen. We need to be thinking not only of the impact we are having on our own generations; we need to be thinking about the generation we are producing to come after us. We need a sense of history and destiny. What kind of people are we producing?

Do You know these words of Jim Elliot, who gave his life bringing the gospel to the Auca Indians? He prayed: "Saturate me with the oil of the Spirit that I may be aflame. But flame is transient, often short-lived. Canst thou bear this, my soul, short life? In me there dwells the Spirit of the Great Short-Lived, whose zeal for God's house consumed him. 'Make me thy fuel, flame of God.'"

It is for people such as this that God is looking in these days. May he find us to be his fuel for the flame of his glory.

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