4501 Waller Rd E
Second Sunday After Pentecost
June 7, 2015
Ascension Lutheran Church, Tacoma WA
Paul Naumann, Pastor
STEPHEN - A TRAILBLAZING WITNESS
Grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord, Amen. The
text for our meditation today comes from the New Testament book of Acts, chapter seven,
beginning with the 54th verse, as follows:
When they heard these things they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed at him with their teeth.
55 But he, being 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 said, "Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of
Man standing at the right hand of God!" 57 Then they cried out with a loud voice, stopped their
ears, and ran at him with one accord; 58 and they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the
witnesses laid down their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 And they stoned
Stephen as he was calling on God and saying, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." 60 Then he knelt
down and cried out with a loud voice, "Lord, do not charge them with this sin." And when he had
said this, he fell asleep. These are the Words.
In the Name of Jesus Christ, who said, "Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of
life," Dear Fellow Redeemed,
You've heard the term "trailblazer", and you probably know what it means. Thomas Edison was a
trailblazer in the field of electrical science; Henry Ford was a trailblazer when it came to the
automotive industry. But do you know where the word literally comes from? Among the Europeans
who first settled the northeastern portion of this country, "blazing a trail" described their method of
marking out a route through the middle of a forest. An explorer would use his hatchet to strike a
white mark or a "blaze" on a tree. Each new mark would be visible from the last one, and this
enabled the next person to travel that route to easily find his way straight through the wilderness
without getting lost. So, the term "trailblazer" refers to someone who has been there first, and who
has marked his trail for others to follow after him.
Sometimes, in your life as a Christian, you may get the feeling that you're lost in the middle of a big
forest. You know you're supposed to be a witness for Christ. But maybe you don't know quite how
to go about it. Or perhaps you're confused about the hostile reaction your witness sometimes
provokes. Or a little frightened by the sacrifice that really witnessing Christ might call for. Well,
you'll be happy to know that you're not lost! Today we'll meet a man who went down that path
before you. His name was Stephen. He was a witness for Jesus - the first one in the New Testament
Christian Church to give up his life for Christ - and he left a trail for you and me to follow. Our
STEPHEN - A TRAILBLAZING WITNESS
I. He shows us the hatred our witness will provoke.
II. He shows us the sacrifice our witness will require.
III. He shows us the glory that awaits each Christian witness.
The first thing Stephen shows us is the hatred our witness will provoke. You probably recognized
the name of Stephen. Even Sunday school children know that Stephen was the first Christian
martyr. It's interesting that the word martyr comes originally from a Greek word meaning "to
witness." It was used in a legal sense of witnesses who were called upon in a courtroom to give
evidence. In a general sense it could mean anybody who stood up for what he believed in. And
that certainly was a good description of Stephen!
Stephen was arrested by the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem. They put him on trial for preaching
the Christian faith -- and for living the Christian faith. But even with his life on the line, Stephen
didn't back down. He gave a faithful witness to the truth of God's word. He preached a long sermon
to the Jewish council. It's a good sermon, too - you can read it in the first 53 verses of this chapter.
He ended his sermon by confronting them with their greatest sin. He told the Jewish leaders flat out
that, by crucifying Jesus, they had rejected the very Messiah whom God had sent to save them.
They had murdered the Son of God!
Stephen witnessed the truth about their sin, and he got quite a reaction from his audience. When
they heard these things they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed at him with their teeth. Those
men hated Stephen for that, and they hated him even more when he looked up toward the heavens
and claimed that he could see Jesus standing on the right hand of God! In fact, they were so angry
that ...they cried out with a loud voice, stopped their ears, and ran at him with one accord; 58 and
they cast him out of the city and stoned him.
God's Word always gets a reaction, have you ever noticed that? Sometimes people react to it with
faith and joy, sometimes with bitter hatred. But there always seems to be a strong reaction. On this
subject no one can be neutral. The writer to the Hebrews says, "The word of God is living and
powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit,
and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart." -- Heb 4:12.
As a Christian witness, it's your job to proclaim God's powerful Word in your conversation and
your behavior. And don't be surprised if people react to that Word powerfully. Sometimes with
powerful anger - even hatred! Remember, you're not the first one to go down this path - Stephen
himself blazed this trail for you all those many years ago!
The second thing Stephen shows us about being a Christian witness is the sacrifice it will require.
You shouldn't be surprised if living as a witness to Christ requires great sacrifice on your part.
Jesus said, "Whoever of you does not forsake all that he has cannot be My disciple." -- Luke 14:33.
There's nothing that you shouldn't be willing to give up if it interferes with your Christian witness.
You can't allow anything to come between you and your work as Jesus' disciple. Obviously, that is
going to involve sacrifice. The members of this congregation are familiar with sacrifice. We're a
small group; we've never had more than fifty members, and our average Sunday attendance is in the
low twenties. Yet this small group of believers has purchased and maintains a property worth over
a million dollars. Over one-third of the mortgage is already paid off. Every member here today has
given much - and I'm not talking just about money, but time, talent, prayers and effort - in order to
contribute to the work of the Lord. And we're not done yet. We've resolved to do everything we
can to reach out with the Gospel in our community, and we talked about new ideas for doing that at
our last congregational meeting. That, too, will involve sacrifice. But let us have courage in the
Lord. The path of sacrifice is a familiar path to Christians. Remember, Stephen was here before you!
And the writer to the Hebrews reminds us, You have not yet resisted to bloodshed, striving against
sin. -- Heb. 12:4. Stephen gave up far more than merely his possessions for the sake of his witness.
He sacrificed his life, and in one of the most brutal ways imaginable.
I wonder if you're familiar with what "stoning" involved. When the accused was judged guilty of
death, they would take him to a place outside the city where there were plenty of rocks lying
around. The two most prominent prosecution witnesses - the ones who had testified against the
condemned man - were required to cast the first stones. This rarely killed the victim, so the whole
crowd would then join in. And it took a long time. They rained stones upon the victim until he
finally collapsed to his knees, as Stephen did, was knocked unconscious, and then finally died. -- Is
it going to cost you anything to be a Christian? It certainly cost Stephen. It cost him his life!
Stephen was truly a trailblazing Christian witness. Step by step he has led us down the trail that a
witness for Christ will follow. His story demonstrates to us clearly what intense hatred our witness
will provoke. It also demonstrates to us what serious sacrifices our witness will require. The
message for us is obvious. If we publicly acknowledge our Christian faith, stand up for the Gospel
and witness our Savior, two things will happen: we will be hated for it, and we will be required to
sacrifice a great deal for it.
Well, if we stopped right now, you might well conclude that it's not worth it - that it would be a lot
easier simply to avoid the responsibilities of being a Christian witness! But that's not the
conclusion Stephen came to, and from our text, it's easy to understand why. Because what
happened to Stephen next shows us the glory that awaits each Christian witness.
Our text says, But he, being 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 said, "Look! I see the heavens opened and the
Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!"
I wish I personally knew more about the scene that appeared to Stephen's eyes that day. I wish I
myself had seen it, so I could do a good job of describing it to you. Better yet, I wish that all of us -
at this moment - could look upward and see "...the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing
on the right hand of God!" Wouldn't that be wonderful? If we, like Stephen, could actually look into
heaven right now - even for just a moment - what a thrill that would be! There we'd see our Savior
on His sapphire throne, and the mansions of the elect that He has prepared for us. With our own
eyes we'd see the heavenly banquet feast. We'd see the smiling faces of our departed loved ones
who trusted Christ, those who have gone ahead of us in the Lord; they'd be waiting to welcome us.
If our eyes, like Stephen's, could be filled with the radiant light of heaven - almost close enough to
touch - what a privilege that would be! If only we could be granted such a vision, then surely we
would have to be the most blessed people on this earth, wouldn't you agree?
But my friends, hasn't God already given us just such a vision? Hasn't He opened heaven to us?
No, not to our physical eyes. The Lord has granted us a view of heaven that is even more certain
and reliable than that. It's right here, in His Holy Word! Here God shows us all we need to know
about heaven, and how to get there. You know, the Apostle Peter once got a glimpse of heaven.
When he was with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration, he actually saw Christ in all His
heavenly glory. He actually saw with his eyes the radiant figures of Moses and Elijah speaking with
Jesus, and heard with his ears the voice of the Father speaking from heaven. But Peter tells us that
there's one thing that's even better than seeing heaven with your own eyes -- do you know what it
is? It's having a Bible! Peter says, "And we heard this voice which came from heaven when we were
with Him on the holy mountain. We also have the prophetic word made more sure, [the Bible!]
which you do well to heed as a light that shines in a dark place, until the day dawns and the
morning star rises in your hearts." -- 2 Pet 1:19. If you're holding in your hands the Holy Scripture -
God's sure Word of prophesy - then heaven has indeed been opened to you. You're looking at
heaven right there in your hands!
Through this account in Holy Scripture, Stephen has shown us the glory that awaits each
Christian witness. But the rest of the Bible shows you that, too. What happened just now during
our liturgy? You confessed your sins and received absolution from the pastor - what is that, but the
opening of heaven? When, from this pulpit, you hear the Good News that your sins are freely
forgiven for Jesus' sake - as you are again today - what is that but the gates of Paradise swinging
open in front of you? When today, in the Sacrament of Holy Communion, you receive the very
body and blood of your Lord Jesus, given and shed for you for the remission of sins -- why, you
may as well be stepping across the threshold of heaven itself, for that's what Holy Communion
entitles you to! Our catechism says, "He who believes these words has what they say and declare,
namely, forgiveness of sins, life and salvation." In the Sacrament, our sins flow away in the blood
of Christ, and are replaced with the perfect righteousness and holiness that our Savior earned for
us. That's why we can confidently sing, in that favorite old communion hymn,
Who can condemn me now? For surely
The Lord is nigh who justifies.
No hell I fear, and thus securely
With Jesus, I to heaven rise!
Lord, may Thy body and Thy blood
Be for my soul the highest good!
Finally, before we leave the story of this trailblazing witness, I'd like you to notice something else,
and that's the way Stephen departs this life. While the rocks are still flying, while this horrifying
means of execution is grinding on to its inevitable conclusion -- look at this fellow Stephen! You'd
think that things would be getting darker and darker for Stephen. That he'd be growing more and
more desperate, more and more frightened. But that's not the case at all. Rather, we find him
…calling on God and saying, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." 60 Then he knelt down and cried out
with a loud voice, "Lord, do not charge them with this sin." And when he had said this, he fell
Remember, Stephen had looked into heaven. And the closer he came to heaven himself, the more
the light of heaven shined through him. I've known elderly Christians, especially, whose faces
shone with that same light; perhaps you have, too. They are the battle-scarred witnesses for Christ
who have fought the good fight, who have endured the enmity of the world, who have made the
sacrifices. But if you had the nerve to ask them whether or not it was all worth it, they'd probably
think that a rather foolish question. Because the closer you come to the end of your earthly life, the
less important the trials and tribulations of this world become. The Apostle Paul, near the end of his
life, pondered which was better: to stay on this earth and serve Jesus, or to leave and be with
Jesus. When he came right down to it, there was no contest! He said, "I have …a desire to depart
and be with Christ, which is far better." -- Phil 1:23.
Today, through the eyes of Stephen, we've glimpsed the glory that awaits each of us Christian
witnesses. If we'll just open our eyes, we'll see that the light of heaven itself is already streaming
down upon us, as it was upon Stephen. Let's live our lives in that heavenly light. Witnessing the
Savior who earned that heaven for us. Being concerned about our fellow Christians, who are our
fellow-travelers on the road to heaven. And showing love for those who are still in the darkness of
unbelief. God grant that we may follow the trail of Stephen, who was truly a trailblazing Christian