In that moment, He saw a demonstration that the Lord reigns. And that gave our brother courage to take every strike all the way to the bitter end. We know from Acts that He has come into His Kingdom. He has all authority in heaven and on earth. And while this martyrdom of Stephen in Jerusalem kickstarted one of the worst periods of persecution and martyrdom the church has ever seen, the standing Christ reminds us that evil did not win, Christ’s Church was not be defeated, and that we must march on in our battles today, knowing that we are gaining ground.
The Beginning of Martyrdom
When you examine the history of the Christian church, there are many reasons why believers have been persecuted and even martyred for their faith. For instance, during periods of Roman persecution, it was commonplace for believers to be murdered for refusing to acknowledge Caesar as Lord. The Romans did not care in the slightest if people wanted to worship a messianic upstart that they, in turn, crucified. They only took issue when Caesar was not a part of your pantheon. You could worship any number of ridiculous gods so long as you acknowledged the lordship of Caesar. And since Christians only have one Lord, they were killed in droves and significantly persecuted.
Now, as we have noted in previous articles, the most violent period of Christian persecution, when you look at it by the percentage of Christians murdered for their faith, overwhelmingly occurred in the first century at the hands of the bloodthirsty Jews. Long before Christianity reached a million people, or 2.4 billion for that matter, and long before it had spread throughout the Roman world, which occurred around the 3rd century AD, this messianic offshoot of Biblical, Old Covenant, Judaism called “the way” (Acts 9:2) began in Judea, and was heavily persecuted in Jerusalem, which is precisely what Jesus promised would happen (Matthew 24:9). That persecution began almost immediately and increased in intensity quite rapidly.
For instance, in Acts 2, the crowds mocked the disciples for speaking in various tongues at Pentecost. In Acts 4, the persecutions intensified, leading to their arrest and warning to never teach in the name of Jesus again. When they failed to heed the warning, they were arrested a second time in Acts 5, this time without warning or offer of release. It was at this point that an angel broke them out of prison, and they went back to the Temple Mount teaching, which led to a third arrest and their first series of violent beatings. By the time you get to Acts 6, one of the early deacons, a man named Stephen, is not only arrested for his faith in Jesus and not only beaten, but he becomes the first Christian to undergo the brutality of martyrdom. After Stephen was stoned, thousands upon thousands of Christians would be butchered in the first century by the Jews in various and sundry ways.
Everybody Needs a Recap
Now, if you have been tracking along with this series on the eschatology of Acts, you will remember where we have been. In week 1, I identified the need for an eschatological series in the Book of Acts. In week 2, we saw how Jesus’ end-time Kingdom was inaugurated in heaven at His ascension. In week 3, we watched as significant eschatological passages from the Old Testament were fulfilled at Pentecost, bringing that heavenly Kingdom down to earth so that it exists in both places. Then, in weeks 4, 5, 6, and 7, we examined Peter’s first eschatological sermon given in Jerusalem, which not only foreshadowed the awful doom of all those who reject Christ but also set forth the glorious Kingdom that would be inherited by all who love Christ. In week 8, we examined Peter’s second eschatological sermon, which teaches how expansive Jesus’ eschatological Kingdom will be on earth for the elect of God. And then last week, we witnessed how the Jews, unwittingly following the prophecy of Gamaliel, were found to be fighting against God and rejecting His Kingdom by rejecting and persecuting His Church. And, just like the messianic upstarts mentioned in Acts 5 (Theudas and Judas), the Jews would soon likewise perish at the hands of invading armies.
Acts and the New Exodus
In a sense, our time in the Book of Acts has been telling us the story of a brand new Exodus. A true and better deliverer than Moses has risen up in Christ, calling all of His people to leave their slavery to sin, be removed from the tyranny of the serpent king, and follow Him to a paradise land where they will be under the canopy of His covenant blessings forever. Like Israel, the early church was experiencing great fruitfulness and multiplication (Exodus 1:7; Acts 6:7). Like Israel, the people of the land were becoming jealous of them and were attempting to stomp them out (Deuteronomy 32:21; Acts 5:17). Like Israel, the early church was being led by the hovering fire and wind cloud of God’s presence. And, in the same way, this growing expansive wandering people became too much for one man, Moses, to administrate faithfully (Exodus 18:17-21), so too, the early church took the advice of Jethro and divvied out the responsibilities to faithful men in the community so that the apostles could focus on the intercessory ministry of the Word and prayer (Acts 6:1-3). Some of these men were set apart as elders in the community (see Numbers 11:16 and Acts 14:23), while others were set apart, like the Levites, as deacons (Acts 6:5-6). Regardless of their position, everyone would come together to joyfully serve the living Christ (the cornerstone of the church) in seeing the Kingdom built up as the true end-time temple (1 Corinthians 3:16), built with living stones (1 Peter 2:5) that would fill the whole earth with God’s glory.
These events are clear allusions to the original Exodus and help us understand why God is going to destroy the first-century Jews. Instead of being the chosen people of God, who with tender hearts followed His chosen deliverer, they grumbled like their ancestors before; they turned on God’s deliverer and not only threatened to kill Him like Moses but shamefully succeeded. For their covenant crimes, killing God’s one and only Son (Acts 2:36), God would do to them what He did to the original wilderness generation, allowing their dead bodies to litter the wilderness ground after a period of forty years (Numbers 14:33; Matthew 24:28, 34).
Amid that Exodus context, God began to raise up faithful men out of that crooked and perverse generation (Deuteronomy 32:5; Acts 2:40). As in the original Exodus, where Caleb and Joshua were set apart for their faithfulness and were allowed to enter the Lord’s good land (Numbers 32:12), seven men were appointed to the office of deacon because of their faithfulness to God. And like Caleb and Joshua, they would not die in the Old Covenant sands with the rest of the rebels; they would lead God’s people like Joshua into the New Covenant paradise that we call the Kingdom of God (or the age of the church).
One of them named Stephen, after they laid hands on him and installed him to the office of deacon, was said to be like Joshua, full of faith and serving God in the power of the Holy Spirit (Deuteronomy 34:9). According to the text, he was doing signs, wonders, and miracles just as Moses did of old (Deuteronomy 34:10; Acts 6:8). When the people of Judah turned on him and threatened to kill him, he broke out in one of the great sermons of the New Testament, mirroring the words of Moses in Deuteronomy 32. In that sermon, he walked the crowds through the noteworthy events of the Exodus and showcased how they had the same heart as the stiff-necked people of old (Acts 7). Just before his Spirit-wrought message, the people noted that his face was shining like the face of an angel, which is the same phenomenon that happened to Moses (Exodus 34:29-35; Acts 6:15).
In almost every paragraph of the book of Acts, Exodus themes are present. And this, of course, is not by accident. God is alerting us that the same kind of people who rejected Him before will reject Him again. They will be given a window of forty years to repent. And because of their unfaithfulness, they will likewise perish.