“Implications of the Ascension: The Stoning of Stephen & the Session of Christ”

Acts 1:6-11; Acts 6:8-7:1, 7:45-60

May 29, 2022

Faith Presbyterian Church – Morning Service

Pastor Nicoletti

The Reading of the Word

As we’ve already mentioned, this Sunday is Ascension Sunday – the Sunday following Ascension Day, forty days after Easter, when we recognize Jesus’s bodily ascension into heaven, to sit at the right hand of God the Father.

That will be the theme of our sermon, though we will move beyond the event of the ascension to consider one of its implications. This morning we will consider the stoning of Stephen and the session of Christ.

The word “session” is an older term, still used in theological circles, that essentially means “sitting.” In the Nicene Creed, we confess that Jesus “was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate, he suffered and was buried, on the third day he rose again according to the scriptures, and ascended into heaven, and he sits on the right hand of the Father, and he shall come again with glory, to judge both the living and the dead.”

The “session” of Christ comes between his ascension and his final return – as he reigns now in heaven, at the right hand of God the Father.

This morning we want to consider the implications of the ascension and the session of Christ for the stoning of Stephen.

With that in mind, please do listen carefully, for this is God’s word for us this morning.

First, from Acts 1:

1:6 So when they had come together, they asked him [that is, Jesus], “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, 11 and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

And then, starting in Acts 6:8 we read about Stephen, a Christian and an officer in the church. We read:

6:8 And Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people. Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), and of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of those from Cilicia and Asia, rose up and disputed with Stephen. 10 But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking. 11 Then they secretly instigated men who said, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” 12 And they stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him and seized him and brought him before the council, 13 and they set up false witnesses who said, “This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, 14 for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us.” 15 And gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel.

7:1 And the high priest said, “Are these things so?”

[For the next 53 verses, Stephen gives a sermon in which he describes the history of redemption – of God’s work in the world – leading up to Jesus, and in which he confronts the people for their historic and current unfaithfulness to God. Then, in verse fifty-four we read:]

54 Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him. 55 But he, 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 he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” 57 But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him. 58 Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.

This is the word of the Lord.  (Thanks be to God.)

“All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord endures forever.” [1 Peter 1:24-25]

Let’s pray …

Prayer of Illumination

Lord, your word is a lamp to our feet

and a light to our path.

And we, as your people, have committed ourselves

to keep your righteous commandments.

In the trials we face,

we ask you, Lord, to give us life according to your word.

As you have accepted our praises this morning,

so now teach us the way you would have us to go.

Your testimonies are our heritage forever,

for they are the joy of our hearts.

Incline our hearts to perform your statutes

forever, to the end.

This we ask in Jesus’s name. Amen.

[Based on Psalm 119:105-108, 111-112]

Introduction

Our text this morning presents us with a difficult truth to consider.

At the time of the events of Acts 6 and 7, Jesus has already ascended into heaven. He is positioned at that point at the right hand of God the Father – a place of authority over the universe. In a number of texts Jesus is described as “seated” at the right hand of God the Father [Matthew 25:64; Mark 14:62; Luke 22:69; Acts 2:34-36; Ephesians 1:20; Colossians 3:1; Hebrews 1:3, 1:13, 8:1, 10:12, 12:2], here Stephen sees him “standing” at the right hand of God, but in either case, the primary significance is the same: Jesus is in heaven, located at the right hand of God the Father, a place of power and authority. [Calvin, 219; Bruce,158; Bruce 155-156 for a summary of some of the debate on the significance of Jesus’s posture]

But if Jesus is reigning in heaven, if Jesus is in the place of power and authority over the universe – as Stephen sees in verse 55 – then why is Jesus’s faithful servant being brutally murdered by the enemies of Jesus in verse 58.

That is one of the questions our text puts before us.

Now, part of an answer can be found in making an important distinction between the ways God reigns. God reigns over all things providentially because he has power and authority over everything that happens – he preserves and governs all his creatures and all their actions. That is true of Christ right now, as he reigns on the throne of heaven.

But that providential form of Christ’s reign is different from the reign described in the kingdom of God. The kingdom reign of God is where God’s power and authority is brought to bear on every power and every creature that opposes him, so that all people recognize his reign. [Frame, 87] That is the kingdom that Christ proclaimed in his ministry, and that is being extended now through the proclamation of the gospel. That is the kingdom that will come in its fullness when Christ returns and completes the defeat of all his enemies.

And so, there is both the providential reign of God and the kingdom reign of God.

In the first sense, Jesus already reigns from heaven. In the second sense, Jesus’s reign is not yet complete. In one sense, today, on Ascension Sunday, we celebrate the fact that Jesus Christ sits on the throne of heaven. In another sense, we still wait for the fullness of his kingdom reign to come at his final return.

We live, therefore, at an odd time, in terms of redemptive history. We live in what many theologians have called “the already but not yet” of the kingdom.

And to live well in that time, we need a proper understanding of and proper faith in Christ’s ascension.

And that, I think, is what is at the center of our text this morning. As we look first at the unbelieving Jews, and then at Stephen, what we see is that a failure to understand our relationship to Christ’s ascension leads to fear, franticness, and hate, in the face of trials and tribulations, while a proper faith in Christ’s ascension leads to confidence, peace, and love, in the face of trials and tribulations.

The Results of a Failure to Understand Our Relationship to Christ’s Ascension:

So first, as we look at the unbelieving Jews in our text, what we see is that a failure to understand our relationship to Christ’s ascension leads to fear, franticness, and hate, in the face of trials and tribulations.

1. Fear

First, there is fear.

The first thing we see here is that a failure to understand our relationship to Christ’s ascension leads to fear when we feel out of control.

Fear really is at the heart of the people’s actions in this passage.

The drive to execute Stephen is, at root, about fear among the unbelieving Jews of our story.

These unbelieving Jews are met with someone who contradicts and defies their view of things, and they can’t control him. And the rush to execute him reveals a fear of being out of control, and a conviction that if they don’t grasp at some mechanism of control themselves, then things will not be set right.

It is often supposed by many people in our secular culture, that it is a belief in a God who acts, and a God who judges, that can lead people to act in violence. But Miroslav Volf – a theologian from Croatia who saw the violence of the Balkans – makes the point that it’s actually when you don’t believe in a God who acts and a God who judges that you will most be tempted to violence. Because then you will fear that if you don’t take control – if you don’t make things right (by whatever means necessary) – then no one will.

In fact, Volf argues, a true “practice of non-violence requires a belief in divine vengeance” – and the belief that it is otherwise – the belief that an inactive or nonjudgmental God is what leads to human non-violence, that belief, he writes, requires “the quiet of a suburban home” to seem plausible. But he continues, “in a sun-scorched land, soaked in the blood of the innocent,” such a plausibility “will invariably die.” [Quoted in Keller, 74]

If you believe that God can and will act in judgment, then you can refrain from violence and vengeance against your enemies. But if you don’t believe God can or will act … then you will fear that if you don’t set things right – if you don’t mete out justice, then no one will.

And it is that kind of fear that animates the unbelieving Jews here. It is that fear that fuels their desperate drive towards killing Stephen.

The first thing we see here about those who do not rightly understand their relationship to Christ’s ascension is that it leads to fear – fear that if they don’t have control, then things will never be made right.

And we see this fear in our own culture, and our own hearts, don’t we?

There is, of course, a place for proper concern for threats to us and those we love. But our culture and our hearts are not today especially characterized by “proper concern.” We are characterized by inordinate and excessive fear.

In fact, some of the biggest debates in our culture and in our churches are not about whether or not we should be afraid, or about whether our fears are excessive, but instead they are debates about which specific things we should be most afraid of, and whether some people are not as scared as they should be. High levels of fear seem to sometimes be the only thing we all agree on.

And that is true not just in how we interact with others, but it is often true of our own hearts as well. We may project toughness or calmness to others … but feeling as if we don’t have control terrifies us. Whatever we might display for others, in our hearts, fear is often our automatic response to every reminder that we are not sovereign.

The first thing we see here is that a failure to understand our relationship to Christ’s ascension leads to fear when we feel out of control.

2. Franticness

The second thing we see is that a failure to understand our relationship to Christ’s ascension leads to franticness in the face of suffering or distress.

While fear may characterize our hearts and our emotions, franticness is often what describes our actions when we face suffering or distress. Our actions and our ways of relating to others become anxiety-driven, impatient, and unthinking, when we lack a proper faith in Christ’s ascension. And that is what we see in the people of our text.

The people are frantic. In their mind there is a distressing tension: they claim to believe that God reigns, but there is someone in front of them denying it. It may be a threat to their beliefs. It may be a threat to their community. It may be a threat to their way of life. And rather than considering what it means to live in that tension, they want to resolve the apparent threat as quickly as possible, and by whatever means necessary.

And so they can’t be patient with the situation. They can’t calmly work through it. They need to do something now – right away.

They also can’t engage with Stephen. When his reasoning is better than theirs, as we read in verse ten, they don’t respond by considering it, or by entertaining the possibility that they might be wrong, but they respond by anxiously plotting against him, to silence him by force, as we read in verse eleven and twelve, and by twisting his words into something more incriminating, as we read in verses thirteen and fourteen. [Bruce, 126]

When Stephen speaks words they disagree with, they cry out, and they cover their ears, and they rush him towards execution, as we read in verses fifty-seven and fifty-eight.

There is a franticness in how the people interact with Stephen – not peace, or patience, or calm, but an anxious desperation to avert any threat of disruption to their lives.

And this same pattern is so common in our hearts and in our culture.

In our personal lives, so often, when tension, or distress, or suffering seems like it may be on the horizon, we become frantic. We are often characterized not by wise reflection on how to avoid unnecessary suffering or loss, but by unthinking, impatient, frantic, and usually futile attempts to buy or control or worry our way out of trials and tribulations.

In our relationships and our cultural interactions, we can hardly stand tension, or opposition, or suffering. How quickly we revert to trying to pressure others into silence when they make us uncomfortable or into punishing them in overt or covert ways when they don’t back down. When people say or do things that might make our lives more difficult, that might require some level of discomfort and even suffering to really engage with them, so often our first response is a faithless and frantic attempt to make them stop, rather than calm engagement, and wise consideration.

The second thing we see is that a failure to understand our relationship to Christ’s ascension leads to franticness in the face of suffering or distress.

3. Hate

The third thing we see in the unbelieving Jews in our text is that a failure to understand our relationship to Christ’s ascension leads to hate in the face of conflict.

In their rush to murder Stephen, this point hardly needs a defense.

Though it could be worth considering the different forms such hate can take.

The hate we see in our text is white-hot, a rage that leads to violence. And we can often see that kind of hate in our hearts and in our culture today.

But hate can also look different.

Sometimes hate looks more like bitterness and contempt. It can take the form not of loud shouts and violent gestures, but of quiet contempt, and of bitter or mocking scorn for other people.

Still other times, hate can come in the form of detached indifference. Here we may not even get angry – but not because of love … but instead because we’ve ceased to even regard our opponents as worth getting upset about. We don’t even care enough about them to get mad. This too can be a form of hate.

So the third thing we see in the unbelieving Jews is that a failure to understand our relationship to Christ’s ascension leads to hate in the face of conflict.

Jesus Christ has ascended to the right hand of God. But the unbelieving Jews in our text do not believe it. And what we then see in them is fear, franticness, and hate, in the face of trials and tribulations.

The Results of a Proper Faith in Christ’s Ascension:

That’s what we see in those who don’t grasp the significance of Christ’s ascension. But what if we do? What if we do believe it? And what if we not only believe it, but we apply it to our hearts and our lives? Well, we see what that looks like in Stephen.

And what we see in Stephen is that a proper faith in Christ’s ascension leads to confidence, peace, and love, in the face of trials and tribulations.

1. Confidence

The first aspect of that we see is that when Stephen is faced with his lack of control over his situation, he responds with confidence rooted in the truth of Christ’s current reign.

Stephen’s calm confidence is what is especially striking in this text. Because it’s clear that he is not in control of the situation – he is not in control over his circumstances. He is surrounded by people who hate him – who are slandering him, and trying to kill him. Yet, Luke tells us Stephen was “full of grace and power” – and we see him speak with gentle confidence even as those around him rage and attack.

How does he do that? What makes that possible?

What makes it possible is that in that moment, Jesus’s presence at God’s right hand was even more real to Stephen “than the angry gestures and cries” of the enemies who surrounded him. [Bruce, 154; see also Calvin, 219]

Stephen saw that Jesus was on the throne of the universe. [Bruce, 156] And that gave him a calm confidence even when he was faced with his own lack of control over his life and his circumstances.

And if we really believe that Christ is on the throne – if we really believe that he is at the right hand of God the Father, then that should give us the same peace and the same calm, when we feel out of control.

We all want control over our lives. But none of us actually have it. We try hard to tune them out, but we face reminder after reminder each day that we do not control our lives or the lives of those we love.

Thinking about that can make us afraid. But as Marilyn Robinson has put it: “Fear is not a Christian habit of mind.”

And fear is not a Christian of habit of mind not because Christians are called on to be extra Stoic … but fear is not a Christian habit of mind because Christians believe that though we are not in control, Jesus Christ is. And he can be trusted. He can, in fact, be trusted much more than us.

And so there is no reason for inordinate fear, but instead, we can have confidence that Jesus reigns over every situation, whether we can see it or not.

Where do you need to remind yourself – where do you need to preach to yourself – that you need not fear because Jesus sits on the throne of the universe?

The first thing we see in Stephen is that when we are faced with our own lack of control over our lives, because Christ reigns, we can respond with confidence rather than fear.

2. Peace

Second, we see that when Stephen is faced with suffering, he responds with peace, rather than franticness.

Stephen’s peace in the face of imminent suffering cannot be denied in this passage. We see it in his calm words throughout our text. We see it even in the way that he died. It’s almost jarring to read Luke describe Stephen’s death by saying that “he fell asleep.” It is such a peaceful description of such a brutal and violent death. But, as one commentator notes, it is a phrase “which fits the spirit with which Stephen accepted his martyrdom.” [Bruce, 160]

But we often struggle to find peace when we suffer. In fact, we can instead find frustration. We can find ourselves saying: “If Jesus is at the right hand of God, then how could he let this happen to me?” Our peace can be disturbed, in other words, not because we doubt Jesus’s power, but because in the face of suffering, we begin to doubt his love.

But Stephen doesn’t do that here. Stephen seems to have peace with the mystery of the suffering that he is enduring.

As we wrestle with that, we need to begin by acknowledging that there is something of a mystery about the age of redemption we live in, between the ascension and the final coming of Christ. I mean, why does this age exist at all, if Jesus has already accomplished our redemption? Why not just apply it in fullness already? Why this time of “already but not yet”? Why this period of sin and suffering?

Now, we do know that the second coming of Christ is delayed in part, so that God can gather more people into his kingdom. But even so, it would seem to us that there could be other ways to do it – ways that wouldn’t involve the stoning of Stephen or the many other forms of suffering and brokenness we see in the world today.

In fact all of redemption, it would seem, could have been accomplished and applied much sooner after sin and death entered the world. But it was not. Instead, God has stretched redemption out, not just over months and years, but over centuries and millennia. And in that time, there has been so much struggle, so much suffering. Why? We are never told. It is a mystery. [Frame, 87-88]

And to be clear, what we mean here by the word “mystery” is that it is something that God knows, but that he has, for whatever reason, chosen not to reveal to us.

And we can struggle with not knowing.

For one thing, we may find ourselves feeling suspicious of God. His decision can feel calloused to us. We might find ourselves thinking things like: “Easy for him to choose to make our lives more difficult.” “Easy for him to extend our time of trials and tribulations.” We can begin to feel like God is distant and uncaring – detached from our struggles.

If Stephen was tempted to feel that way, then he got a reminder that that was not the case when he looked up and gazed into heaven. He got a firm reminder, the Lord is not detached from our struggles.

Because when Stephen looked up and saw Jesus at the right hand of God the Father, Jesus still bore the scars of his crucifixion. The Lord Jesus who held all authority and power over Stephen’s life, still bore the marks of the suffering he had endured in order to save Stephen. And if that Lord had gone through all that to save him, then how, even now, could Stephen doubt his love for him?

Stephen may not have known what Jesus’s purpose was in allowing terrible suffering into his life. But he could be at peace with that mystery. Because he knew not only that Jesus reigned in heaven, but also that Jesus loved him far more than he could imagine.

In the sacrificial love of Christ, we are reminded that while God has allowed suffering to continue for a time in this world, he has not asked us to endure anything for him that he was not also willing to endure himself for us. In fact, anything we endure will pale in comparison to what he has endured in order to save us. In Christ, God himself came to earth, and in his work to redeem us he received unto himself not just the ordinary or even the extraordinary sufferings of this world – he received the infinite pains of hell, poured out on him on the cross. He received cosmic abandonment. He received more anguish than we can imagine. And he did it to save us. He did it out of love for us.

One theologian puts it like this – he says: If we “ask the question: ‘Why does God allow evil and suffering to continue [right now]?’ and we look at the cross of Jesus, we still do not know what the answer is. However, we now know what the answer isn’t. It can’t be that he doesn’t love us. It can’t be that he is indifferent or detached from our condition. God takes our misery and suffering so seriously that he was willing to take it on himself.” [Keller, 30-31]

The suffering you face in your life may be a mystery. But even in the midst of it you can have peace, because you know that Christ not only reigns in heaven, but he loves you enough to endure the pains of hell in order to secure what is best for you.

Where do you need to more fully believe that?

Where have you been frantic in the face of suffering or distress: grasping at control, grasping at explanations, grasping at empty solutions? Where have you lacked peace?

Faith in Christ’s sacrificial love and confidence in his current reign does not eliminate the reality or the pain of your suffering. But it does offer peace. It offers peace because it means that even if you can’t think of a good reason why Christ would allow this suffering in your life, still you must believe that he has a good reason – a loving reason – for it, because after all he has already sacrificed for you, after all he has already endured in order to save you, you cannot doubt his love for you, or his loving intentions for what he will do in your life.

In what area of your life do you need to remember and believe that?

The second thing that we see in Stephen is that a proper faith in Christ’s ascension leads to peace in the face of trials and tribulations.

3. Love

Finally, a third thing we see here is that a proper faith in Christ’s ascension leads to love for our enemies in the face of conflict.

Stephen’s love for his enemies cannot be denied here – especially in contrast to how they treat him.

Though they scheme and plot against him, he seeks to openly and honestly engage with them. Though they slander him, he tries to reason with them. Though they rush at him and murder him, his last act is to pray for them.

How is he able to do that?

Well, Stephen has a proper faith in the works of Christ – of what Christ has done, where Christ is now, and what Christ has still promised to do.

And so Stephen’s response to his enemies is rooted not only in the sacrificial love Christ has shown in the past, or the heavenly reign of Christ in the present, but also in the glorious return of Christ that is promised for the future.

In other words, Stephen knows both that Christ reigns now, and also that his reign will not always look like this. Stephen knows that one day, Christ will return, and when he does, his reign will be known and felt by every person and over every-square inch of this world. And those who have rejected him and fought against his reign and his kingdom, will face the consequences of their treason.

We can be far too this-worldly in how we think of our enemies. Whether we are thinking of the cultural battles that we are often drawn into, or the personal struggles we have with the people around us, or just how we feel in our hearts about the darkness and the evil in this world – we often look at the things of this world, but we block out from our view the promises of Christ about what is to come.

Those who set themselves against Christ and his kingdom, will face Christ when he returns, on judgment day. Every person will stand before him. Those who have confessed their sins and unworthiness and who have clung to Christ in faith will be saved, and will enter the New Heavens and the New Earth, where they will spend eternity with Christ and his people forever.

But those who have denied Christ – those who have resisted him, those who have been passive or active enemies of Christ and his kingdom and his people – they will face judgment. They will face the justice of God for their unrepentant cosmic treason. They will be cast out into the darkness for all eternity. That is what the Bible tells us – that is what Christ’s future reign after his return will include.

And if we know that – if we really believe that – then how should we respond to the enemies of Christ when they seek to hurt us? When they seek to harm us? When they seek to slander, or ostracize, or even murder us, as they did Stephen? How should we respond?

Well, we should respond in a number of ways. But one of those ways should be with loving pity. Because the fate they face, if they should persist, is far worse than any hardships we will face at their hands. That was true for Stephen even as they brutally killed him. Stephen knew what awaited his assailants if they did not repent. And, like Christ, he felt loving pity for them.

And so he responded to them not with the hate of white-hot anger, and not with the hate of contempt and scorn, and not even with the hate of detached indifference. He responded with active love. He responded by not only trying to point them to the truth himself, but by turning to Jesus and pleading for them in prayer. His final words in this life were “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”

If we believe that Jesus is coming back – if we believe that he will set all things right – if we believe that he will judge all people, then when others attack, or slander, or try to harm us, loving pity towards them must be part of our response. Loving prayer for their salvation must be part of our response. Because we know that the judgment they will face is far worse than anything they can do to us.

For Stephen, that love was called for especially in one intense moment of compassion towards his murderous assailants. For most of us, that love will be called for more often in how we respond to the daily, ordinary troubles of this life. How will we respond when the people around us seek to harm us? How will we respond when they twist our words in order to hurt us? How will we respond when our cultural opponents slander us? Will we respond with hate, as they do? Or will we remember that we believe that Jesus Christ will come again with glory to judge both the living and the dead? Will we respond by praying for, and pleading with those who do the wrong – for their salvation and deliverance?

Because that is what we are called to if we really believe in the final coming of our ascended Lord.

How does that fact need to change how you respond to the non-Christian neighbor, or co-worker, or family member in your life? Even if they have hurt you … even if they have slandered you … even if they hate you … how do you need to take the response of Stephen to heart? How do you need to respond to them with loving pity, knowing that Christ will return, and that the time for their repentance is short?

Conclusion

We live in a fearful, and frantic, and often hateful world. And fear, franticness, and hate are far too often present in our own hearts.

But Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ has ascended to the right hand of God the Father. And Christ will come again.

Trusting in those truths, let us respond to the trials and tribulations of this world like Stephen: with confidence despite our lack of control, with peace despite the suffering we may endure, and with love despite the hate of our enemies.

For “Behold […] the Son of Man [even now is] standing at the right hand of God.

Amen.

 This sermon draws on material from:

Calvin, John. The Acts of the Apostles 1-13. Calvin’s Commentaries. Translated by John W. Fraser and W.J.G. McDonald. Edited by David W. Torrance and Thomas F. Torrance. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1965.

Frame, John M. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2013.

Keller, Timothy. The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. New York, NY: Penguin, 2008.

Bruce, F.F. The Book of Acts. Revised Edition. NICNT. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1988.

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