27 Oct 2019
Stephen was a man who lived like Christ, spoke like Christ, and died like Christ. His death brings a powerful encouragement to all who follow Jesus. It presents a real life example of how the victory of Christ over death changes the way a Christian can face death too. These wonderful truths on dying in Christ are also very instructive on how we can be living for Christ today.
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In the Chinese service, we have been going through the book of Acts. I want to share with you a short but powerful passage that would give us great encouragement as we strive to follow Jesus. Allow me to introduce this passage to you. I want to share with you this story about a man called Andrew Rivet. Andrew Rivet is a professor of theology. He was born in 1573. He taught in the University of Leiden in Holland and he is known to be a man full of the Holy Spirit, a godly man who taught for 50 years and had been a blessing to many, many believers. However, in 1650, in December, Christmas Day, he was stricken with a severe disease of the abdomen. At age 77, he passed away after 10 days in 1651, on the seventh of January. But before he passed away, he wrote and shared his experience as he knew his life was drawing to a close. He shared that his pains were endurable, but his joys were inestimable. He said that he felt the presence of the Divine in these final days. As he reflected upon his life, he said that he used to look forward whenever a new book would come out in his day, and he would want to get a hold of it so that he can learn more about the Savior whom he loved; about the God whom he worshipped; the wisdom from other men. However, he shared in his testimony before passing away that in these last 10 days of his life, he has learned more about God than in the previous 50 years because God came and met with him. It seems that the horrors of death were changed into the hope of glory for a follower of Jesus many hundred years ago, called Andrew Rivet. His experiences are not unique to himself because we are going to look today at another man 2000 years ago, after the gospel spread throughout Jerusalem. On the day of Pentecost, it touched the heart of a young man named Steven and he became a devout, godly follower of Jesus. When he met with death, he gave us a glimpse and insight of how the gospel has changed death for him.
The martyrdom of Stephen
So today, I'd like to share with you on the martyrdom of Stephen. Turn with me in your Bibles, if you have and if you would, in Acts chapter seven, verses 54 to 60. For most of us who are familiar with the Bible, we have heard of Stephen. He seemed to be one of the lesser heroes of the faith in the New Testament. He may have admirable qualities. The author, Luke, of the book of Acts, described him in glowing terms in chapter six, telling us that he's a man full of a Holy Spirit, full of faith, full of grace, full of power. However, because after he testified to the Jewish Council, the same one that tried and sentenced Jesus to the cross, the same one that warned and threatened Peter and John not to preach in the name of Jesus, the 17 men who together represent the highest legal authority in Israel; after he gave his witness, they put him to a horrible and cruel death. And so, while we may admire his qualities, many people feel that Stephen is just a tragic figure. However, today I want you to look at his martyrdom from another perspective – at what he has demonstrated not only with his life. He lived like Jesus, he spoke and witnessed like Jesus, and we are going to see how he died like Jesus. He is the first Christian man recorded in Scripture who describes for us how the gospel changes death, not just for Steven or Andrew Rivet years ago, but also for you and me. And so, this is the simple truth I'd like to share with you today and I hope that you will begin to understand how amazing and blessed the gospel is. The gospel of Jesus Christ changes the horrors of death to the hope of glory for those who follow him. Now, Stephen did not meet with a decent death experience – what do I mean? A lot of us would think that if you can have the hope of glory, it is because you are surrounded by loved ones who would weep at your bedside, maybe tell you how much they would miss you, love you and see you in heaven. And so, you say, “Well, in that case, I can have a sense of the hope of glory”. Perhaps for some people, they feel that if they have worked hard to achieve much in life, and have a lot of money in the bank, titles behind their names, and then they feel that they have so-called glorified God, and therefore, they can pass on because they have been there and done that. However, today when we look at Stephen, he had none of these things. He was surrounded by men who hated his message and hated him because he spoke for Jesus. Through this cruelty of hate, they wanted to put him to a sure death. And so if Stephen, in the storm of what was going on around him, could have the hope of glory, it tells us how real the gospel is and how powerful it is to change death for us. So, turn with me now and take a look at how Acts chapter seven verse 34 describes it. Scripture tells us, “Now when they heard these things”. Who are “they”? Mentioned earlier, these are the Jewish High Council, the Sanhedrin, the 17 men who form the highest legal judicial authority in Israel. Now, take note, these are not hooligans, these are not gangsters. These are not people who got angry and break their beer bottles and went to a fight. These are people who are respected. They are like the judges, the lawyers, the teachers; these are the men who everyone else is Israel listens to and looks up to, calling them “Rabbi” and calling them “teacher”. And yet, look at what happened when they are confronted with their sins. With the reality that they have rejected Jesus, rejected the Messiah. And they have always, Steven accused them in chapter seven, of resisting the Holy Spirit. The Bible tells us, “they were enraged” – these were elderly men, respected men, intelligent men, powerful men, and yet they cut to their hearts, and they began to “ground their teeth at him”. This is an ugly picture; these are not people you want to meet in the morning or at night, or any time of the day. Yet, what Stephen saw around him was 17 men who should be ruling in love and wisdom, grinding their teeth at him, and they hate him so much. The Bible tells us in verse 57 to 58 that “they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him”. They were supposed to sit in their seats of authority, remain cool, calm and collected, pass a sentence on Stephen, and then let the soldiers bring him out for execution. But instead, we see that they lost control and all semblance of law and order crumble at that moment. They could not stand what Stephen was saying anymore and they rushed at him, brought him out the city and wanted to stone him to death. Now, if you get hit by the rock on the first count, you might lose consciousness but you wouldn't die immediately. And so, Stephen did not have just one stone thrown at him. He had multiple stones thrown at him. It was hard work for those who were carrying out this sentence, who are trying to put him to death. And so, the Bible tells us that as they were getting ready to start their work, the witnesses laid down their garments. They knew it was going to be hard work. They knew they were going to have to throw one stone after another to try to finally end the life of this follower of Jesus. And the Bible tells us that when they laid down their garments, they laid them “at the feet of a young man named Saul” (Acts 7:58b). Many Christians try to find comfort in the tragic end of this hero of faith. He is lesser known but he is still a beloved figure in the New Testament because of the fact that his death could have resulted in the conversion or impacted the heart of one of the greatest missionary apostle of all times – the apostle Paul, who finally brought the gospel all the way to Rome and wrote more than half of the New Testament. But you see, when we try to find comfort in things like that, we are saying, “okay, nevermind if I were to die; at least my life had an impact on others”. We are trying to find consolation in the consequence, or the result or the effect of such a horrible end to our lives. Many Bible scholars have done so when they talk about Stephen. They talked about how after he died the missionary movement went beyond Jerusalem. They talked about how Philip began to bring the gospel to Samaria. And then Saul got converted and he began his missionary journey. But you see, while that may be admirable and desirable, what comfort do we really have at the moment of death of Stephen? How could he find the hope of glory? If we talk about the impact or result, he cannot see that and he cannot know that. So, what hope does he have? But today, you see, we follow the same pattern. We read in the newspapers that when somebody rich and famous passes away, we say, “Oh, this person is worth this much money”. So, we are saying that at least the person has been there and done that, earned all the money he needs and wants, and so it is time to go. But do you know something? God has made us with eternity in our hearts. And those consequences, those effects, and what we leave behind do not really bring consolation. And so, how did Stephen experience the change by the gospel?
What does the Bible say about death?
So, let us now look at the Bible. Let us look at what the Bible says concerning death. Now there are people who not only try to find consolation in the impact or the results of their lives and say, “Well, no, maybe that's okay. You can move on now.”. There are others who try to dismiss it with some philosophy or some nice saying such as, “Oh, you know, when you pass away, you just move on or you just disappear.” and so on and so forth as if death is nothing or as if death is a friend. But what does the Bible say? The Bible tells us in 1 Corinthians 15, verse 26, that death is an enemy. Death is not a friend. There is nothing nice about death. There is nothing pleasant. There is nothing good about it. Why? Why is death an enemy? Scripture tells us that God did not create men to die. He created men to live forever in fellowship with Him, to glorify His name, to know the beauty of who He is and what He has done forever and ever. But you see, death is an intruder on the scene of His creation. Death is an invader. Scripture tells us in Romans 5:12 that “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned”. So, let us have it locked in our minds that there is nothing romantic about death and nothing beautiful about it. It is ugly; it is cruel. It is unnatural; it is not God's intended order. But the gospel changed all that. Scripture tells us in 1 Corinthians chapter 15, verse 54 to 57, “Then shall come to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up into victory.” – you see, death is ugly, cruel, unnatural, and is not God's original creation. But God, through the gospel, brought victory over death. And how did he do so? Scripture tells us that He gave us the victory through Jesus Christ, our Lord, and that is the gospel. Now, you may be wondering; if you are new with us and you have not heard the gospel before: how did Jesus defeat death and how did Jesus bring victory through the gospel? Scripture tells us that when he died upon that cross, he was bearing our sins (the sins of the world) upon his shoulders, upon his body. He was paying the price we could not pay. It is sin that separates us from God, and when sin separates you and I from God, we have no hope of eternity. We only have hope in this world, in the temporal and material things of this life. But we are able to deal with the problem of sin because Jesus bore it all for us. That is why the Bible tells us that when he was about to give up his life, he cried out and said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). You see, Jesus bore the separation from God when he bore our sins on our behalf so that when we repent and trust in him as our personal Savior, our sins can be forgiven, we can be reconciled with God, and then death will be changed from its horror into glory. And this is why the Apostle Paul, understanding this marvelous truth of the gospel, said in Romans eight, verse 38 to 39, “For I am sure that neither death nor life” which means that you don't have to wait till you are ushered into eternity. When you trust Jesus as your personal Savior, when your sins are forgiven, you are reconciled with God and you have a relationship with God that gives you an eternal hope in life and also in death. Why? Maybe you didn't hear it properly just now; I shall repeat it one more time. Because when Jesus died on the cross, he shed his blood (his precious blood) to wash away all of our sins. And so, when we trust in Him who died in our place, our sins are removed. The stink of death, which is sin, is removed and is taken out of our life. God forgave us as a result of what Jesus did, because we trusted in him. And so, we are reconciled. The moment we are reconciled, nothing will separate us from God and therefore, we would always have hope – no longer horror but hope. Why? Because of the gospel. It is not because you talk positively, not because you have the right philosophy, not because you've got good theology alone, not because you have great Bible knowledge, not because you were born in a Christian home, not because you came to church on Sunday morning, but because of the gospel. A young girl laid on her deathbed at 15 years of age and she was a devout follower of Jesus. When the doctor came in to examine her condition, she was already paralyzed in half of her body and blinded in her eyes. The doctor took a look at her, diagnosed her condition and told her parents, “The best days of her life are over. Prepare for her demise.”. Upon hearing that, the young girl cried out to the doctor and said, “Doctor, you are wrong. The best days of my life are yet to come because I shall see my Savior in his beauty and glory.”. You see, she understood the gospel, she understands that neither death nor life can separate her from her hope of glory, not because of who she is, not because of what she has done, but because of what Jesus has done for her. The gospel changed death and its horrors into the hope of glory. Here is another man – his name is DL Moody. He was an American evangelist who brought the gospel to many, many people who trusted and knew him. He was beloved by all those who knew him. But as he grew older, he knew that he was one day going to be passing away, and they will miss him. And so, he told them this before he was going to die. He said, “Someday you will read in the papers that DL Moody of East Northfield is dead. Don't you believe a word of it. At that moment I shall be more alive than I am now; I shall have gone up higher, that is all, out of this old clay tenement into a house that is immortal – body that death cannot touch, that sin cannot taint; a body fashioned like unto His glorious body.”. You see DL Moody preached a gospel he knew. He understood that the gospel has changed the horrors of death into the hope of glory because he is following Jesus. He's not following his ideas or his good works. He is resting in the Savior. Now, I know that some of you have been to church, and maybe many of you have been for a very long time, and you're wondering, “why is Pastor telling me all this that I already know?”. Well, it is true; most of you already know this. But you see, this is all just a review and an introduction. So now we are going to the real meat, the real story. Just now was the theory of this wonderful gospel truth. Now we are going to go into the practical. We're going to look at a case study. Because what we are going to look at in our passage today is not someone who has this lofty idea about the hope of glory. He is a man who faced a cruel and horrible death; and this, he testified is what he saw and experienced at that moment.
How did the horrors of death change into the hope of glory at the martyrdom of Stephen?
So, this is a question we want to ask. How did the gospel (now, remember not theory, this is a practical case study) change the horrors of death into the hope of glory at the martyrdom of Steven? This is a precious story. Because since Jesus died and rose again and ascended to heaven and sat down the right hand of the throne of God, and the gospel spread, this is the first recorded case in detail of what happens when a believer faces with death. And I pray this morning, that while you may not be thinking of it, perhaps someone in your family, someone you know, or a loved one may be struggling with this, that you can lend hope because of the gospel that you begin to understand. So, let's look at how Stephen, under the cruel storm of hatred, remain hopeful because of the gospel. Scripture tells us that when these stones were flying and when these people with murderous intent were attacking him, “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). You see, death reaches out and try to swallow Stephen up in its jaws. And if it were not for the gospel, then that would only be horror, dread and darkness. But because of the gospel, God changed the jaws of death into a window of heaven through which Stephen saw the glory of God and Jesus. Why could he see that? Why could he know that? Is it because he is better than you? No! Remember, it is because Jesus died on the cross for our sins, his blood washes away our sins, and we are reconciled to a holy God. When he looked at death, he no longer saw the ugly jaw, he saw a window of heaven open, and those were his exact words. He said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened.” (Acts 7:56). That is our hope, friends, because you have trusted in the Savior. When death approaches, there is no more horror and fear because you do not know what may come. But you will see that there is a glorious hope in the future. And you know what, it is not just an empty hope. There are Christians who discuss and come up with ideas like, when we die we are annihilated, or our soul goes to sleep, as if we go into some emptiness, or some bright, white light. We see these in the movies but they are not based on Scripture. The Bible tells us that when the windows of heaven will open for Stephen, when he saw the glory of God and Jesus, what else did he see? Scripture tells us that he saw the “Son of Man standing at the right hand of God”. In other words, he saw a personal Savior, someone who has followed and known all his life since he trusted in the Savior. He sees him now rising up and receiving him. It is not an impersonal heaven. It is not just streets of gold and bright lights, and you wander on your own. There is a relationship that is eternal when you trust in the Lord. And while death threatens to take away all your dearest relationships, the gospel changes all that and allows you to have a glimpse of how the most important and the most precious relationship will not be lost at the face of death. And that's how God changes the horrors of death into the hope of glory, by changing it into a window of heaven through which we could see the glory of God, of Jesus, and we could see that he is there waiting to receive us. And the next thing we see is that when Stephen saw death, they were stoning him and the missiles of death were flying. They were filled with cruel hate. They were grounding their teeth at him. They hated him. There was no love. There was complete rejection, no words of comfort, and no acceptance. Anyone would have crumbled. But you know something? Stephen did not despair. Why didn't he despair? Because God once again changed the horrors of death into the hope of glory by changing it into a doorway through which he could now enter into communion with Jesus. Now, here's the theological question for you. Should Jesus be sitting or standing at the right hand of the throne of God? The Bible tells us in Hebrews that after Jesus died and rose again he has finished the work of redemption, and he sat down on the right hand of the throne. God. In other words, he has finished a work of redemption. In the Old Testament, the high priests have no chairs. They cannot sit down because the Messiah has not come. So, the author of Hebrews says that the high priests have to continually and yearly offer up sacrifices. But when Jesus came, he finished the work of redemption. When he ascended into heaven, he sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. It signifies that the work of redemption is finished and completed. But let me ask you another question. When Stephen saw Jesus in heaven, was Jesus sitting or standing? You all weren't paying attention, right? So now don't know the answer. I'll give you the answer. Jesus was standing. Now here's the next question – a deep theological question. Why was he standing then? The work was already finished, so why was he standing? You see, the Bible commentators, scholars and pastors scratched their head, and wondered why because this doesn't seem to square with the theological truth of the finished work of redemption. But you see, when Jesus saw that Steven was coming home, he was following him, and he was being put to death. Jesus did not say, “Hey, I have already died for you. Just come up.”. Sometimes we think of death like that – that you're on your own and you have to figure it out: sing your own songs, comfort your own heart, send your own SMS and hopefully cheer your heart. You think you're so alone but the Bible is describing to us a beautiful picture of communion. Jesus is concerned for his own. When he saw Stephen about to give up his life, he rose up as it were and he stands ready to receive him into glory. This is a beautiful picture of the love and fellowship we have with our Savior. And that's why Stephen cried out when he saw the Son of man. He said, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”. He is not going into nothingness. He's not going into emptiness. He is not going into the embrace of a stranger. He is going into the fellowship of Savior. So, how did the gospel change the horrors of death into the hope of glory? God changed it by turning it into a doorway through which we can enter into the fellowship of our Savior. There is one more thing we see in the death of Stephen and his martyrdom that happened. The Bible tells us that when he was hit by these stones one after another, and he got weaker and weaker, and is falling to his knees, he knew he was going to die. Did he cry out with a loud voice, “God, rain down fire and brimstone on them.”. Did this happen? I think we might cry out like that because we often think, “You hate me? I hate you back. You don't like me? I also don't like you. You don't find me. I don't find you.”. We learn this from young, right? That if you don't share with me, I don't share with you. So, the Chinese say, “Ni You Chu Yi, Wo You Shi Wu. Kan Shei Hen.” (which translates to ‘You have the first day of the lunar month and I have the fifteenth day of the lunar month. Let’s see who is more cruel.’). But you know what, that's not Stephen. Who did Stephen sound like when he said, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” (Acts 7:60). Who did he sound like? Who does this remind you of? He sounded like Jesus! When Jesus hung upon that cross, he cried out when they were mocking him, when they were cruel to him. He said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”. So, what happened here? When death comes and it threatens to turn us to despair, to hopelessness, to regret, to bitterness, to anger about ourselves and others, maybe we want to complain and murmur. God changed that horror of death into the hope of glory by giving us a victory through which we can demonstrate our likeness to Jesus. You see, death does not end it all for the follower of Jesus. Death does not have to make us bitter and angry with life and with others. The worst trials and the ultimate end in this life, which is called death, can yet become a victory through which we are changed into the likeness of our Savior. So, let me sum it up for you here in the case study or the practical, to see how we can actually today, like a man like Andrew Rivet, like Stephen the martyr, have the gospel so touch and change our lives that we see death being changed into a window through which we can see the glory of Jesus, a doorway through which we can enter into the presence of Jesus, a victory through which we can demonstrate our likeness to Jesus. In 1956, there was a man his name is Jim Elliot. Together with four or five of his friends, he was trying to reach the Auca Indians in South America. They were cannibals. They were man-eating tribes. When they met up for the first time with the natives, they got frightened and they attacked Jim Elliot and his friends. They speared them to death. The world mourned the loss of five outstanding young men who could have a bright future. It seems like such a waste and such a tragedy, because if through death they could bring about the conversion of the Auca tribes, how much more could they have done if they had lived on? But you see, Jim Elliot, in his memoirs, in his autobiographies, he wrote some things that gave us a glimpse of how he understood the gospel. In 1948, about eight years before he died for the Lord, he tells us in his writings, “God, I pray Thee, light these idle sticks of my life, and may I burn for Thee. Consume my life, my God, for it is Thine. I seek not a long life, but a full one, like you, Lord Jesus.”. In other words, Jim Elliot is not looking for a length or quantity of years, but he is looking for a quality of life. So, what would make life full and rich? A life that is like the Lord Jesus. And what is a life that is like the Lord Jesus? If in life or in death, he realizes that it becomes a window through which he could see the glory of God, by which he could have a doorway to enter into communion and fellowship with the Savior, through which he could have a victory to demonstrate his likeness to Jesus. And so, in the year 1956, because he understood the gospel and how it changes everything, God said, “Well done, you can come home.” and so home he went. History tells us that men and women, his wife included, continued to bring the Bible and the gospel to the Auca tribes, and eventually they were converted to the law. Now we're talking about heroes of the faith and this is what works in our minds when we think about men like Andrew Rivet, Stephen in the Bible, Jim Elliot – we think that they are kind of like faraway figures. You know, I'm just an ordinary Christian. I mean, I came over because I live nearby and there is a nice building here with air-conditioning, so it is great but then this pastor here is telling me about death and what-not. Okay, it is kind of challenging, but it is not quite my cup of tea. So we don't think that this has much to do with me. I mean, well done for them but me? Come on, I don't need death to scare me to bits. Okay, almost any problem I have, any letters I receive from the authorities or from the doctors, you know, make me lose sleep at night. So, you know what, Pastor, this is way off for me.
The Holy Spirit
So, let's ask another question. How did Stephen enter into this hope of glory as he faced death? Is it so unique to him? Is he so exceptional? Is it because he is Stephen and I'm not? Is it because Andrew Rivet is a professor of theology and I'm not? Is it because Jim Elliot is an outstanding Christian missionary and I'm not? What made the difference? The Bible actually tells us why he had this hope of glory. The Bible tells us that when they dragged him out to stone him to death, in chapter seven, verse 55, Stephen was “full of the Holy Spirit”. You know, if you're sitting there thinking, “this is not me, there's no way I could have this hope of glory, you know, all this as well and dandy, nice-sounding but it is not going to work for me.”, you know you need to think again because the Bible tells us is not because Stephen is special. It is not because Stephen is exceptional but it is because he is full of the Holy Spirit. You see, we are all weak. We are all prone to despair. We are all going to give into depressive thoughts and none of us would like stones flying at us. Could you imagine if you walk out the doctor's office and he tells you “this is the late stage and there is nothing much we can do”? And what are we going to do? These are like stones hitting us and trying to crush our life, one after another. And for some of us, it doesn't rain but it pours. At one moment, you're good but the next moment, everything is swept out the window. It seems that all is lost. But you know something? Scripture tells us in 1 Peter chapter four verse 13 to 14, “But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings… If you are insulted for the name of Christ, you are blessed.”. Why? “Because the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.”. You and I can have this hope of glory not because we are better than everyone else. We can have it simply because the gospel changed everything for us and the Holy Spirit brings us the comfort we need at the right hour. Yesterday, after the evening service, a young man came up to me and thanked me for the message and he shared with me this tragic story of how his wife just passed away in September. She had been in coma for seven years but through the journey of these seven years, he and five other families, 82% of them came to trust and know the Lord, including himself. And he said, after he trusted and knew the Lord, he felt that he had the strength and the hope to carry on. These are his words; he said that before he heard this message, he thought he could bear with it all, he could have peace, and he could have strength and hope because he is respectable. But after he heard the message, he realized that it is because of the Holy Spirit. You see, if you are a follower of Jesus, when you face the trials and difficulties in life, if you yield yourself to the Holy Spirit and let him bring comfort to your heart, you will find a peace that surpasses all understanding. This is what Stephen at his martyrdom testified to and it is real up to today. Not only was he full of the Holy Spirit, the Bible tells us that when those stones were flying, “he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven.”. You see, the problem with us is that we sometimes think we know so much, and we are so clever. So, every bit of information that comes to us, we analyze until we are paralyzed, because we think, “Oh, you know, wow, cancer. So, we got to do this, we got to do that.”. You get on the internet and while you think you're getting information, the Bible tells us that too much knowledge is weariness to the soul. And so, if we are reading good news, we get happier and happier, right? That makes sense. But if you are reading bad news, the more you read, the more it cripples you. And so, while you're reading and thinking you're getting cleverer to deal with this problem, you get crushed over and over again because you found 101 different ways you could die. Nobody is going to be happy about that. But what's the problem? The problem is that you gaze at medical science; you gaze at all these alternative medicines; your gaze is maybe at the nutritional solution, and you think you got it all. But actually, you forget that where you look determines what you see when death approaches. You see, Stephen had gazed at all the angry faces. Do you think he could say, “Well, never mind, they are good people after all”? What good would that do? If he gazed at the angry high priest and said, “you know, at the end of the day, he is a servant of God.”. What good would that do for you? He is growling, and he is grinding his teeth. He hates you. There is no hope and no comfort if you are gazing at man, or gazing at the stones, or using your logic and rationale. And so, Stephen (the Bible tells us) gazed into heaven. He looks to God. Do you realize that there are times in your life where when all else fails and you don't turn your gaze to heaven? If you don't look to God, there is no hope apart from God. There is no comfort apart from the Holy Spirit. And because Stephen was gazing into heaven, he found what the psalmist wrote about in Psalms 23 which says, “even though I walk through the valley of shadow of death, I will fear no evil.”. Why? Because he's smarter than you? No. Because he is richer than you? No. Because he knows more, he is more pious, he comes to church, and he gives off his offering? No, because “you are with me”. You see, he is gazing towards the shepherd. He's saying, “I don't know everything. I cannot handle this. It is out of my control. I have no hope apart from you, Lord. But I thank you. You are with me.”. You see, what you gaze at determines what you see when death approaches. And so, because Stephen was gazing the right place, he found that God is with him and the rod and the staff of God, they comfort him. Now, I know that I have shared a lot with you about death because this is about the martyrdom of Steven. And many of you are thinking you know, “What? I am in the prime of my life. This is the last thing on my mind. I can’t wait to get out of here and have my lunch and then go to my next shopping trip.” I understand all that. So, I want to close with this talk. A thought about the martyrdom of Stephen given to us by another well-known and beloved pastor. His name is John Piper and look at what he says. He says, “… the way to die in the power of the Holy Spirit is also the way to live in the power of the Holy Spirit.”. In other words, although this message is focused on Stephen's martyrdom or death, the same principles apply to our life. If we understand that, we will begin to live like Jesus so that we will die like Jesus and have the same hope of glory. So, with this thought in mind, let me bring the same three points back to you in a new focus. The Gospel does not change death alone; it changes life, your life, my life right now, into a window through which we can see the glory of Jesus. Have you thought about that? You don't have to wait till you die. You don't have to wait till trouble strikes before you see that there is life and there is hope beyond this world. The gospel changes life into a doorway to enter into the presence of Jesus. You don't have to wait till you die or you live this way before you enter into his embrace, you can right now have communion with Him. The gospel changes life into a victory through which we can demonstrate our likeness to Jesus. More than 20 years ago, before I got married, there was a CD circulating around. I couldn't remember the name but after the first service, somebody kindly shared it with me that this is the CD, which is called, in Chinese, ai shi yong bu zhi si (which translates to love does not ever cease). It is the testimony of this man by the name of Chen Chen Gui. I don't know whether you have heard of it. Basically, there is this good-looking, handsome young man about to get married to this young lady, and they are Christians. But just before they got married, he found out that he had nose cancer and so, from a good-looking young man, his whole face was disfigured as time went along. The DVD shared the story of how they struggled through all the grief, sorrow and despair. Through it all, they came to grapple with life and death with the gospel. They emerged from it victorious and they began to give their testimonies and ushered many to salvation in Singapore, Malaysia, and in the region. So, it was trending, and it was being passed around. I watched it just before I got married. Now, I understand that for some of you, when you watch something like this, you get very stirred and energized, and you feel that you are ready to follow Jesus. But for me as a young man then, I watched it and I thought to myself, “You know what? I'm going to get married and, in the story,, he was about to get married. He's a Christian, I'm a Christian. He wants to follow Jesus, I want to follow Jesus. And by the way, he's also a Cantonese – and they are supposed to be most susceptible to nose cancer, and I'm also a Cantonese.”. So, I thought, “Lord, are you going to visit me with nose cancer, too?”. I mean, that was a real fear; it was real! You may laugh at me now, but you know, I was really, really wrestling with that thought. What if? What if? What if God allows me to be stricken with nose cancer just before I got married? I looked at the story and I thought, “you know, this is really, really scary. You know, Lord, I love and I want follow you, but can I not be stricken with this?”. I know it is glorious, but I don’t think I want to go that way. And so, I don't know how; I don't know how to get out of it, in my mind and in my heart. I prayed and I sought the Lord, and after many days, I finally felt the Lord impressed upon my heart. And He told me this; He said, “You know what, child? (I found Him speaking to my heart after I sought Him all these days) You know, I allowed Chen Chen Gui and his wife to suffer this because they can handle it.”. It makes sense, right? Because after it hit them, they struggled, and they came out victorious. They are sharing their testimonies, and there was joy and there was hope, and then it led many to the Savior. Then the Lord told me, “You don't have to worry, because you can’t handle it.”. And you could tell that after 20 years later, I still can't handle it, right? Because my nose is still in its proper place. So, what's my point? Do I wait till I get struck with nose cancer? Do I wait till I get hit by a terminal illness? Do I wait to death knocks on the door and say, “Lord, I want to see you in your glory.”. I think that's a bit late, isn't it? I think if we think like that, like “Oh, when I retire or when I die, then I will follow you.”, I think it's a bit too late. The martyrdom of Stephen is not just about how to die well. It is about how to live right. And so, I told the Lord, “You know, I thank you that you are leading me. I want to follow you. So, let my life from this point onwards be a life that is a window through which I can constantly see your glory.”. I asked the Lord, “You know, let my life be a doorway through which I can constantly come into your presence. Let my life become a victory, although flawed and imperfect, through which I can demonstrate my likeness to you.”. So, let's not wait till illness strikes and let's not wait till death knocks on the door. Let our lives be changed by the gospel because Paul said, “for me to live is Christ, and to die is gain”. You see, for me to live is self, for me to live is money, is riches, is respect; it is me, myself and I. Then at death, we would only see its horrors because we do not know the hope of glory in the Gospel. But if for me to live is Christ, I understand I'm imperfect, but I am saved by grace, and I'm seeking Him and following him. Then when I am finally faced with death, because I have learned to depend on the spirit to gaze into heaven to look to the Lord, or when tragedy and trial strikes, I find that what I've been learning all my life is true, and even more true at death. And so that's why the key truth today is not going to be a reality. The theory you know is not going to become the practical you can experience if you are not following Jesus. It makes sense, right? If you are gazing at your achievements, your successes, and your abilities all this time, when trouble hits, you will count on them and they will fall through and crash. But if you are gazing to Jesus and you're looking to him, then come what may, His rod and His staff, they will comfort me; the Spirit of glory and comfort rests upon me. It's not me, it's you, Lord, and I want to follow you. So, I pray that all of us will understand that the gospel is not just a religion, not a feel-good session on Sunday morning, not a philosophy. It is supposed to change our life and it is supposed to change the horrors of death into the hope of glory for all of us who follow Him.
Let us pray. Our Father in heaven, we thank You for Your word. Father, it is easy when life is going well for us to think that it is just a collection of good thoughts or some nice Bible verses. Then, we are good to go and have a happy, fruitful life. But we realize that we live in a sin-cursed world and life is constantly ravaged by the horrors that sin brings into our homes, marriages, bodies; and that this world is not our home. We have a hope that is real in this life, and that goes beyond this life into eternity. I pray today that You will make it real to those who are struggling among us. And I pray the same for those who may not be thinking much about it, that your truth will gird the loins of their mind and will tighten up their understanding of what the gospel has done for them so that whether in death or in life, they will know that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. That is what matters from now to all eternity. We ask this in Jesus name, Amen.
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More Episodes from Pastor Chee Keen Seethor:
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07 Apr 2023
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25 Dec 2022