Although you may never face the kind of persecution that Stephen did, God calls you to be a faithful witness to his glory, Acts 7:54–8:1. The passage deals with the heart of forgiveness and equips you to be the Lord’s witness.
Stephen’s prayer contrasts with unforgiven sins. Zechariah had prayed for justice. A clear example of a request for sin to be held against someone is Zechariah’s prayer for justice, 2 Chronicles 24:22. This priest, son of Jehoiada who had saved the life of King Joash, was, by order of the king, stoned to death after rebuking the people for their idolatry. Does this sound like what happened to Stephen? His dying prayer was that the Lord would see this and call the murderers to account. God heard that prayer, and the death of Joash (2 Chronicles 24:25) was a result, though, of course, the final judgment is in the life to come.
God is just and therefore punishes sin. This incident is a specific working out of the principle that God, because he is holy, remembers guilt and punishes sin, as Hosea 8:13 and 9:9 remind you. God cannot simply ignore sin. Sin is connected with the sinner, and it is the sinner who receives God’s punishment for his evil. God’s character remains the same today. He does not accept any excuse. The only way that you can stand in the presence of a holy God is if the guilt of your sin has been place on a substitute, and if the holy and just anger of God against you has been satisfied in the death and resurrection of his Son.
There is an “unforgiveable sin.” There is an unforgivable sin, as Jesus points out in Mark 3:28–30. It is not one of the terrible sins that we might think of (read 1 Corinthians 6:9–11), but involves a knowing rejection of Christ, attributing his work by the Spirit to Satan. The Christian who is afraid he might have committed this sin is probably not guilty of it. Nevertheless, remember that any and all sin, if it remains unforgiven, results in God’s eternal judgment.
Your sins are not held against you. Repent and believe! Against this background look again at Stephen’s prayer and give thanks that your sins are no longer held against you. Forgiveness involves repentance and faith. Stephen prayed for his executioners. Was that unanswered? No. At least a partial answer came with the conversion of Saul of Tarsus. The basis for the forgiveness you receive from God is never your repentance and faith, as essential as they are. The basis is the death and resurrection of Christ, the One to whom you look in faith.
Stephen echoed the prayer of Jesus, Luke 23:34. Stephen’s prayer echoes the prayer Jesus prayed, Luke 23:34. This prayer of Jesus is what accounts for the difference between the prayer of Zechariah and that of Stephen. If there were ever a sin which would be unforgivable, it would appear to be the murder of the only sinless person ever born, the one who is not only human, but is the God-man. What restrains the onlooking legions of angels? The prayer Jesus offered. You saw that prayer being answered as Peter preached repentance in his Pentecost sermon. Jesus’ prayer summarizes the life, and especially the death and resurrection of Jesus.
God no longer holds your sins against you. Jesus came so that your sins are no longer be held against you. For the sake of Christ your sins are pardoned and you are accepted as righteous in the sight of God. He no longer remembers your sins. He does not hold them against you. “Forgiveness is not overlooking a transgression, it is not simply to be of a forgiving spirit; it is not even the readiness to forgive. Forgiveness is a definite act performed by us on the fulfillment of certain conditions: ‘If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him’ (Luke 17:3)…. We greatly impoverish ourselves and impair the relations that we should sustain to our brethren when we fail to appreciate what is involved in forgiveness. Where would we be in relation to God if God were simply ready to forgive but never actually gave us the sentence of remission and absolution?” (Collected Writings of John Murray, Vol. 3, pp. 191192).
Your Lord is the faithful Witness. Jesus stands at the right hand of the Father. Be faithful because your Lord is faithful to you. He is not ashamed of you. Notice what Stephen sees: Jesus standing at the right hand of the Father. The right hand is the place of honor, but note the posture. Stephen, in a way that is without parallel in Scripture, calls Jesus, “the Son of Man.” The glory of Daniel 7:13 and Psalm 110:1 are reflected in the title. In other New Testament references to Psalm 110 sitting is mentioned. Why is the Son of Man standing here? Examine Luke 9:26 (and 12:8,9). Following Peter’s profound confession, Jesus makes a statement that scandalizes his disciples: he must suffer, be rejected, and killed. He summons his disciples (and you) to take up your cross and follow him. That is the context for the warning of Jesus that when he comes in his glory he will be ashamed of those who are ashamed of him. Positively, in Luke 12:8–9, he will acknowledge those who acknowledge him. In addition to being king and priest, Jesus is the witness. He is standing before his Father bearing witness concerning his servant and preparing to receive him into his glory. His testimony is based on his redemptive work in the place of his people. This glimpse into heaven reveals how different is the reality of glory from earthly appearances. This glorious Lord is unashamed of you as you trust in him, as you live in faithful covenantal commitment to him. “Stephen now beheld the heavenly court, where another Witness stood to give testimony, as he had promised, ‘I tell you the truth, everyone who acknowledges me before men, the Son of Man will acknowledge before the angels of God’ (Luke 12:8).” (Dennis E. Johnson, Let’s Study Acts, p. 93).
The Lord acknowledges you as you confess him. How can you be a faithful witness? What was the source of Stephen’s boldness?As you follow your faithful Savior, recognize the glory of the Lord. Stephen was full of faith and the Holy Spirit. That is mysterious, but not magical. It grows out of solid grounding in the Word of God, growing trust, and a commitment to faithful obedience. Stephen had been willing to walk by faith, not by sight, and the Lord granted him a special view of his glory. That seems to be what made his face shine like that of an angel. Follow your faithful Savior by keeping God’s glory central in your witness. Stephen’s defense had focused on the God of glory. God has given you, like Stephen, the calling to be his witness, Acts 1:8. What is the focus of your testimony? It is not so much that you are summoned to begin to witness, but that you already are a witness, declaring something by your life. Is your life, like Stephen’s, such that if someone is going to bring an accusation against you, it is going to be a false charge? It is that focus on God’s glory that enables you to forgive. “Stephen’s martyrdom is paradigmatic for all who harm and inflict persecution on the church. What is true of Stephen is true of all God’s people. As the message of the gospel goes forth in the book of Acts, persecution against the church rapidly increases. But the church is to take comfort in the Son of Man’s heavenly position, for he will vindicate the righteous and wage war against the persecutors of the church.” (G. K. Beale and Benjamin Gladd, The Story Retold: A Biblical-Theological Introduction to the New Testament, p. 164) Be confident that God uses your witness. Stephen’s death seems to be a tragic waste of a gifted servant of the Lord. What has become of his testimony? Do you wonder what are the effects of your witness? Does the testimony of this church in this community amount to anything? Have you noticed the detailed eyewitness account of Stephen’s defense and death? You have the details of his speech. The expression of his faith is described, and even the volume level of his final words. What source (Luke 1:1–4) did Luke use for this account? The outer garments of the executioners are laid at the feet of a young man, who, we learn later, was a rabbinic student of the great Gamaliel, Acts 7:58; 8:1. Is he the one who told his later travel companion, Dr. Luke, of Stephen’s faithful witness? As someone has said, we have Stephen to thank for the apostle Paul. What impact did this witness have on Saul’s eventual conversion? God’s word does not return to him empty. He uses the witness of his people. He uses your witness.
God summons you to be a faithful witness. But, like Stephen, you can do that only as you trust in the faithfulness of your heavenly witness, the Lord Jesus Christ. You are forgiven because of him and his work. Don’t be ashamed of him. He is not ashamed of you!