Sunday, September 6, 2009

Counting The Cost

“And they stoned Stephen, calling upon God, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep.” (Acts 7:59-60)
We live in a nation where we count the cost of everything. We turn on the news and hear about the rising cost of gasoline. We go to the grocery store and experience the rising cost of food. When planning a vacation we have to decide where we can afford to go. Our time is even converted to dollars and cents.

Counting the cost --- we know what that statement means in relation to our secular world, but what does it mean in relation to our Christian walk?

According to the church reformer Martin Luther, “A religion that gives nothing, costs nothing, and suffers nothing, is worth nothing.”

There is a price to pay for being a disciple of Jesus Christ. According to Scripture, the man known as Stephen knew this, as it cost him his life.

Stephen first came on the scene in the book of Acts, chapter 6, after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He was one of the first deacons of the early church and the first Christian martyr. A martyr is “a person who voluntarily suffers death as the penalty of witnessing to and refusing to renounce a religion”1 -- like Christianity.

Stephen was a leader among the Greek-speaking believers of that day and he became well-known as a preacher and a miracle-worker. Acts, chapter 6, verse 5, describes Stephen as “a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost,” and verse 8 describes him as “full of faith and power,“ and it states that he “did great wonders and miracles among the people.”

Stephen began to openly criticize the Old Testament laws, claiming they had lost their effectiveness and served their purpose. Stephen’s work was so effective that renewed persecution of Christians began to break out throughout the region.

In those days Jews offered the blood or the flesh of an animal to God as a substitute payment for their sin. However, Stephen believed that killing animals to offer sin offerings was no longer required by God. After all, why continue offering sacrifices for sin if God’s Son died for the sins of humanity, and if people can find forgiveness by believing in Jesus and repenting?

Stephen’s viewpoint brought him into conflict with powerful leaders among the Jewish people. However, these leaders were no match for Stephen’s brilliant speaking skills. Stephen was one of those men who had a way with words, and he could out talk the best of them.

Many of these Jewish leaders felt that Stephen had blasphemed God. In other words, they accused him of cursing God, of showing contempt for God, of having a lack of reverence for God. In those days, blaspheming God was a serious crime punishable by death. It was a violation of the Third Commandment, which required that the name and reputation of the Lord be upheld.

Acts, chapter 6, verse 12 tells us that Stephen was arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish council that had ordered the execution of Jesus. Charges were placed against him, and just as they had done with Jesus, false witnesses were brought before the council to testify against Stephen.

During the trial, the high priest asked Stephen if the accusations were true. The Scriptures tell us that Stephen stood fast before the council, and that he appeared to have “the face of an angel” as he defended himself.

Acts, chapter 7, verse 2 through 53, records the words that Stephen used in his defense. Stephen summarized the Old Testament teachings. He traced Israel’s history from its founding and portrayed the Jewish people as continually rebellious toward God, and he also charged them with killing Christ, just as their ancestors had killed the prophets.

It seemed as though Stephen had flipped the script on them. Instead of Stephen being on trial, Stephen had put the Jewish people on trial.

Stephen’s speech outraged the Sanhedrin. According to verse 54, when the council heard Stephen’s words, “they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed on him with their teeth.” The word “gnash” is defined as: “to strike or grind (as the teeth) together.”2 In other words, they were very angry.

Then, in the mist of Stephen’s trial, as Stephen was defending himself, and the council was becoming angry, Scripture tells us that Stephen has a vision. It says that Stephen “saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God” (Acts 7:55).

Why is it that Stephen had this particular vision at this particular moment? Was it to give him comfort and courage as he faced his enemies? Did he have the vision so that he would reveal it to the council and thus bring on the next set of events?

Whatever the reason, Stephen tells the council of his vision, and this enrages them further.

According to verse 57 the council, “cried out with a loud voice, and stopped their ears, and ran upon him with one accord.” The crowd run Stephen out of the city and they stoned him.

A young man named Saul sat by and watched the spectacle. In fact, he guarded the clothes of the men who stoned Stephen. Saul was a faithful Pharisee and a witness to the killing of the first Christian martyr. How ironic that this man who played a role in the killing of Stephen would later be known as the Apostle Paul, the great Christian missionary to the Gentiles.

As Stephen was being stoned, he called out to God to receive his spirit and he asked God not to charge his executioners with the sin of his death. Can you imagine asking God with your dying breath not to punish the people responsible for your death?

Finally, verse 60 tells us, “he fell asleep.” In other words … he died.

Stephen’s death was followed by a great persecution of the Church. Believers were threatened with arrest, imprisonment, beatings, and even execution. Most believers in Jerusalem left town and scatter throughout the region. This scattering led to the preaching of the gospel first to the Samaritans and then to the Gentiles in the nations surrounding Palestine.

Yes, Stephen knew how to count the cost.

For Stephen the cost of discipleship was his life. For the believers who were persecuted after Stephen’s death the cost of discipleship was the threat of arrest, imprisonment, beatings, and possible execution. For other believers the cost of discipleship was their home in Jerusalem; and possibly their family and friends.

How do we count the cost in this text? For Stephen and the early Christians the cost was high, but the gain …ohhhh … the gain to Christianity was great.

It was through Stephen’s death, the persecution that followed, and the fact that believers fled Jerusalem, that Christianity was spread to other parts of the world.

That made all of their suffering worth the cost … that made all of their sacrifice worth the cost … that made all of their pain worth the cost … that made all of their loss worth the cost … and that made Stephen’s death worth the cost. All of their suffering was worth the cost, because it was used by God to spread the Word of God to other parts of the world.

(Next time we will learn what Jesus said about counting the cost of discipleship.)

1”Martyr.“ Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2009. Merriam-Webster Online. 6 September 2009.

2”Gnash.“ Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2009. Merriam-Webster Online. 6 September 2009.

1 comment:

  1. LaRora from ChattanoogaSeptember 8, 2009 at 3:37 PM

    We need to count the cost more often. We say we count the cost when we give to a missionary out of our abundance of wealth but do we count the cost when we are with our friends and colleagues at work? Do they know it is inappropriate to tell us a dirty joke? Have we been left off guest lists for parties where drinking alcohol will be present? Have we taken a stand that has costs us more than money and yet still less than the sacrifice that Stephen made? Too often the answer to these questions are no. If we can’t count the cost in these little things then how can we be trusted with the bigger things.