St. Stephen, Martyr
Dec. 26, 2017 A+D
Acts 6:8–7:2a, 51–60
Dearly beloved: In the holiday carols playing on the radio since Halloween, you do not hear the strong, athletic, bloody, cross-shaped side of Christmas. Not much. Some of the songs are just stupid. Others are fables. Some of the best are basically lullabies for the newborn Christ child. A few proclaim our great joy at the newborn king of the Jews, the king of the world. But how many of those carols link manger and cross, and put the blood of Christ in the celebration of Christmas? Well, St. Stephen’s Day does that for us, even if the songs on the radio don’t.
The martyr death of St. Stephen belongs right next to Christmas. It seems like a contrast; something out of the blue. Stephen’s sermon is like an Old Testament lesson that is opposite to the hope and joy of Advent’s Old Testament lessons. When Stephen preaches the Old Testament, the promised king of Israel has come, and a whole lot of people do not like it. The hope of Advent has turned into the hatred of St. Stephen’s Day. That seems like a contrast.
But I think St. Stephen belongs right next to Christmas. Christmas Eve is the history of Christ’s birth. Christmas Day is the doctrine of Christ’s person. Now St. Stephen’s Day is the doctrine of Christ’s work. Within eight days of Christmas, the joy of the incarnation is given its blood, by way of the martyrs St. Stephen today, the Holy Innocents on December 28, and by way of the circumcision of the Lord Jesus on January 1. The manger and cross are joined. Christ came to suffer and die. The devil opposed, and will oppose, not just Christ our head, but also us His members, for we are joined in one body. Stephen belongs next to Christmas.
Now, I mentioned that St. Stephen’s day is about the work of Christ. Here is what I mean. When Stephen preaches Christ, he preaches mostly Christ’s work. The Jews accused Stephen for saying that Jesus would destroy the temple and change the customs (Acts 6:13–14). This was the accusation, and the chief priest asked, “Are these things so?” (Acts 7:1). Stephen’s answer is that Abraham and the patriarchs lived without the temple, as strangers in the promised land. Indeed, finally Solomon was the one who built the temple. And God does not dwell in the temple anyway. The Bible says so, in Isa. 66 and elsewhere. God’s presence in the temple liturgy was not something that the priests could presume to possess just by working the work of sacrifice (ex opere operato). His presence was always an act of grace, and even while present in the temple to hear the prayers of His people, He did not leave His abode in heaven. That’s one aspect of Stephen’s answer. It’s as though he said, “The temple is not as important as you chief priests seem to think it is.”
The other aspect of Stephen’s answer is that Jesus is the great prophet whom Moses foretold. And all the prophets were rejected by Israel (at least at times and by some, if not by most). For example, Abraham was a stranger in Canaan. The Patriarchs were in slavery in Egypt. Moses was rejected by the people. As Stephen preached, “For he supposed that his brethren would have understood that God would deliver them by his hand, but they did not understand” (Acts 7:25). “This Moses, whom they rejected” (Acts 7:35) “said to the children of Israel, ‘The Lord your God will raise up for you a Prophet like me from your brethren. Him you shall hear’ ” (v. 37). Yet Moses was one “whom our fathers would not obey, but rejected” (v. 39). This, this is the way in which the Prophet would be like Moses. He would be rejected. So it’s as though Stephen said, “Yes, Rev. Dr. High Priest, these things are so. Jesus will destroy this temple and change the customs. And what’s more offensive is this: you killed the Lord’s Christ.” That is Stephen’s answer. Jesus is the great prophet whom Moses predicted.
The Jews are enraged. Stephen must die. He is dragged out. He will be stoned. And what does Stephen see here? He sees the Lord Jesus not as a prophet but as a priest. “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” (Acts 7:55). Standing is the posture of one who does battle or gives help. At court, the judge sits and the attorney stands. Here the Lord Jesus stands, as one who helps Stephen and intercedes for him with God. Let this by your comfort whenever the radio’s Christmas carols lose their appeal. The Lord Jesus stands to help His martyrs. Whenever you must be persecuted, you will not be alone. The highest priest is on your side. At his death Stephen sees Christ as priest, standing, interceding in the heavenly temple.
Therefore Stephen’s dying words are words of forgiveness. Christ died for our sins, saying “Father forgive them.” So Stephen resembles his high priest, saying, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin” (Acts 7:60). This is sheer mercy and love! With these words on his lips, it is right and fitting for Stephen’s face to be as the face of an angel, and for him to see the glory of God. For this is truly the glory of God: that the celebration of the newborn Christ child is proclaimed to us for this purpose: that Christ would be the true prophet, would be rejected by His nation, and yet would depart with words of forgiveness.
Christ was born to die for you. Stephen belongs with Christmas. Stephen saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. And we with the angels sing, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, good will to men.” Amen.
The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
Rev. Dr. Benjamin T. G. Mayes