Gazing at the Risen Lord (Acts 7:56)

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Easter Sunday is in reality not much different than any other Lord’s Day, except for the fact that it is commonly “Resurrection Sunday.” According to the Jewish calendar, it is the Sunday following Passover, which, of course, was the Sunday on which Mary and some of the disciples came to the tomb of Jesus and found empty. The triumphant phrase, “He has risen indeed!” has now for almost 2,000 years been the common refrain of believers throughout the world. It is wonderful that the significance of this Sunday is inescapable in almost every place in the world. What happened on that Sunday so long ago has made a huge difference for nearly two millennia.

Years ago James Kennedy wrote an outstanding book titled, What If Jesus Had Never Been Born? He traced the impact of Christianity in every area of life: science, education, morality, criminal justice, social justice, medicine, law, human government, etc. He showed the difference that Jesus Christ has made in the history of the world. But the issue is not only, what if Jesus had never been born?, but also, what if Jesus had never risen from the dead after His crucifixion? As Paul said, if Christ is not risen then our faith is empty and we are of all men most to be pitied (1 Corinthians 15:12-19).

My theme in this particular study (which is taken from a sermon preached at BBC on Easter Sunday 2012) is the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. I use the title “Lord” deliberately because this is His deserved appellation in the light of His resurrection.

In another study, we learned that Good Friday quite literally made, and continues to make, all the difference in and to the world. It has certainly made a difference in Africa.

In this study, I want to ask with reference to the resurrection of Jesus Christ, what difference does it make? My answer is that, like Good Friday, it makes all the difference in and to world. My prayer is that you will see that it also makes a difference to your world, and that the difference it makes today will continue to make a difference long after you have left your place of worship on any given Sunday. May it make a difference for the rest of your life, and especially as you face death. It certainly did in the case of Stephen.

Our text highlights the profound difference that the resurrection of Jesus Christ made in the world of Stephen’s day and the difference that it made in his own life. As he gazed at the risen Lord He lived and died well.

We have no doubt all been greatly impressed with the testimony of Stephen as he stood before a hostile Sanhedrin and was martyred by stoning. His faith was clearly intact as he cried out to the Lord as an intercessor for his enemies.

But what was it that gave him such composure and such boldness? What gave him such confidence to face an otherwise very horrific death? Quite simply, it was because of his conviction that Jesus was indeed alive; Stephen was absolutely confident that Jesus Christ had risen from the dead. Yes, Stephen was convinced that Jesus had risen indeed!

You will remember the story.

Stephen was one of the Seven, chosen to administrate the material care of the widows and some of the wider issues of material disbursement in the church at Jerusalem. He was a man full of faith and wisdom, and was filled with the Holy Spirit. He was also a competent Bible student and proclaimer of the Word of God. This landed him in hot water.

As he engaged unbelieving Jews in the Synagogues of the Freedmen, he most likely encountered Saul, the man who would become the apostle Paul. Much blood would be shed before this transformation took place—including Stephen’s own blood.

As Stephen was arraigned before the Sanhedrin (which included Saul) he was condemned as a blasphemer. He took the stand and made the biblical case that he, in fact, was an orthodox Jew. That is, he made the case that he believed that the law of God, the land promised by God, and the liturgy surrounding the temple of God, all pointed to Messiah, the Lord Jesus Christ—the very one whom they had crucified!

Stephen made the case that he was not guilty, but he sealed his fate as he pointed a confident, convicting and condemning finger at the real blasphemers: his accusers (vv. 51-54).

The straw that broke the camel’s back, however, was when Stephen, “being full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.” What he saw could not be kept to himself: “Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” (vv. 55-56). This statement put the council in a difficult position, for it was this very same claim by Jesus (Matthew 26:64-66) that they used to charge Him with blasphemy, and which resulted in them turning Him over to the Romans to be crucified. And now Stephen, some three years later, claimed that indeed he saw Jesus right where He said He would be!

The Sanhedrin either had to admit that Jesus was right—that they had not merely put an innocent man to death but were responsible for the death of their Messiah—or further compound their guilt by putting to death one of the Lord’s followers. They chose the latter.

As they stoned Stephen he cried out, “Lord Jesus receive my spirit” (v. 59). This is interesting on two counts.

First, Jesus said something very similar when He died at the hands of blasphemers. He cried, “Father, ‘into your hands I commit my spirit’” (Luke 23:46). He trusted God with His soul when He died.

Second, when Stephen imitated his Master he was clearly identifying Jesus as God. Just as Jesus trusted God the Father with His soul, so Stephen trusted Jesus as God with his soul.

Significantly, Stephen knew that Jesus was God by virtue of seeing His position in heaven. The word “gazed” means “to gaze intently,” “to behold earnestly or steadfastly,” “to fasten the eyes,” or “to look earnestly or steadfastly.” The idea, obviously, is that Stephen’s entire focus was on the risen Lord. And what he was seeing made a huge difference with how he behaved.

Stephen saw Jesus at the right hand of the Father where He had been ever since that first resurrection Sunday. The resurrection of Jesus Christ proved to Stephen that indeed Jesus has all authority in heaven and earth. In other words it was proof that He is God. Seeing Jesus in this prophesied position of the Son of Man (see Daniel 7:13-14) was proof that He was the Son of God!

As Stephen breathed his final breath he cried out to the Lord—interceding for his enemies—to forgive those who were taking his life. Amazing! Yes, amazing grace.

How can we explain such composure in the midst of such a horrible way to die? Well, by this point I am sure that you can answer that question. Simply, the risen Jesus made all the difference. You see, Stephen lived well because Jesus had risen indeed, and he died just as well because Jesus had risen indeed. As the text tells us, Stephen’s focused gaze was on the risen Lord. Because he could see so well he could die so well.

And you? How is your sight?

In the remainder of our time together I want us to see the difference that the resurrection makes. I want to do by emphasising our need to gaze on the risen Lord.

Gazing at the Risen Lord is the Effect of Grace

Our text tells us that Stephen was “full of the Holy Spirit” (v. 55). Why exactly was this so? How did it come about?

It came about because Jesus died, rose from the dead and ascended to heaven. In fulfilment of His promise, the Holy Spirit came to earth to regenerate those for whom He died (Acts 2:36-39; see also John 14-16). It was only on this basis that the Holy Spirit came. Let me put it this way: Stephen was filled with Holy Spirit because of the resurrection of Christ. (And as we will soon see, it was because He was filled with the Spirit that he was enabled Stephen to believe in the resurrection of Christ.)

Apart from the work of the Holy Spirit Stephen would have been no different than his accusers. And neither would we. We would never believe that Jesus rose from the dead if we were not irresistibly convinced by the blessed third member of the Trinity (John 16:5-14).

Clearly these who persecuted Stephen to death did not believe, despite overwhelming evidence. Seeing the glory of God is why Jesus came to earth to live, die and rise again (see John 17). The reason that these men responded like they did was because they could not—would not—see the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. By God’s grace, Stephen did believe.

The contrast introduced in v. 55 by the word “but” was created by the resurrection. The unbelieving (because unseeing) Sanhedrin gnashed while Stephen gazed. What a grace that Stephen could see! And what a grace that many of us can see the risen Lord as well!

We need to learn from this that salvation belongs to the Lord (Jonah 2:9). Only He can raise the spiritually dead, and this is inseparable from His enabling us to believe that He raised Christ, who was physically dead. In other words, believer, thank God for His gracious power in making you a believer in the resurrection of Christ (see Romans 10:9-13)

Gazing at the Risen Lord Empowers Us with Grace

The word “grace” can be used in several different ways, but at root it has the idea of unmerited, undeserved and unearned favour. Sometimes the word is used to speak of God’s undeserved strength that He graciously gives to us (see 2 Corinthians 12:7-10).

Clearly, in the account before us, we see God’s supernatural strength being given to Stephen in his hour of great need. His response is “super-human.” And as we have seen, it was his gaze that empowered him for this trial; it was his gaze at the risen Lord that empowered him to do the otherwise unimaginable. Stephen’s gaze at the risen Lord empowered him to behave cross-culturally.

And what was true of Stephen is no less true for us. If we will gaze at the risen Lord—if we will stay focused on the one who rose from the dead—then we too can do the otherwise unthinkable. In the words of William Carey we can not only expect great things from God but we can attempt great things for Him. Let me flesh this out with some examples.

Take, as a first example, the education of your children. Does God want your children to have a Christian education? If you take His Word seriously, you must answer in the affirmative. But to give them such an education requires that we do something countercultural, something enormous, something beyond the ordinary. It means that we must attempt a great thing for God.

Several years ago there was a Christian school that used the premises of BBC. It lasted for a few years and then shut down. Sadly, though understandably, this discouraged many of our parents, and so today when such a project is mentioned many respond like a deer looking into the headlights. Even worse, some have used this failure as a club to knock into oblivion any suggestion of BBC embarking on this course. I maintain that if we see Jesus on the right hand of the Father (whether sitting or standing!), we will not be intimidated from attempting such a great thing.

I am afraid that, at least in the context of BBC, we have lost a pioneer spirit. The founders of our church were pioneers. They attempted great things for God because they believed he was capable of doing great things. We have inherited the blessings of their pioneer spirit, but have grown accustomed to all the pioneering being done by previous generations. Second and third generation believers in our church appear not to have the same spirit as their forbears had. But we need such pioneers! We need reformers. We need risk takers who are willing to defy the odds because of a conviction that Jesus Christ has risen!

Consider, as a second example, and slightly more generally, the issue of raising a godly seed in the midst of an ungodly society. The key is to keep before us that Jesus has risen and ascended. This reality is necessary and empowering. It will keep us believing as we are reminded that He is still interceding.

God is committed to saving families. Look up the biblical promises and look into heaven at the risen Lord, trusting Him to save your children and to sanctify them. He can overcome your child’s agnosticism (or atheism!) and rebellion. Are you intensive in your efforts to raise your children to love the Lord your God? It can (and must) be done by the grace of God. This world can be changed one family at a time!

As a third example, take the fulfilment of the Great Commission. Christ’s Lordship is rooted in His resurrection. Since Jesus has risen we have every reason to believe His promise that anywhere His church goes He goes (Matthew 28:18-20).

I am afraid that we have become so accustomed to reports of the startling growth of Islam that we have come to feel powerless regarding the Great Commission. Reputable statistics do not back up the claims that Islam is conquering the world.

Consider, for example, the following article, which appeared on 26 March on the Christian Post website:

The idea of more than 200,000 former Muslims coming to faith in Sub-Saharan Africa within a few short years is mind-boggling. But entire mosques in Sub-Saharan Africa coming to faith? That news is even harder to wrap one’s mind around, but it is in fact what is happening according to reports from a former church planter among Muslims in West Africa.

In the new book Miraculous Movements, Jerry Trousdale, now director of International Ministries for CityTeam International, records amazing and inspiring stories of faith among Muslim communities in Africa. The author opens up a new world to Western readers, taking them into the heart of the “miraculous movement” of God in Africa that is transforming the hearts of Muslims.

Trousdale writes that “unprecedented” events are happening among the Muslim populations that his ministry and its affiliates are working among, including:

  • Multiple cases of entire mosques coming to faith
  • Thousands of ordinary men and women being used by God to achieve seemingly impossible outcomes
  • Tens of thousands of Muslim background Christians becoming dedicated intercessors who fast and pray for the gospel to penetrate the next community
  • Muslim people groups that never had even one church among them now have more than fifty church planted, and in some cases more than one hundred churches – within two years of engagement
  • Former sheikhs, imams and militant Islamists making up 20 percent or more of the new Christian leaders in Muslim regions

“We had seven years now in Africa. And of the people in Africa, 81 different people groups that have at least 50 percent Muslim have now significant movements among them. Of those 81, 45 are people groups with 99 or 100 percent Muslim,” said Trousdale in an interview with CP. “So we are talking about fairly extreme areas of Islamic influence. These are people who have been Islamic for well over a hundred years, some hundreds of years.”

“This is just good news that God is in the same business as He was in the book of Acts,” said the missions leader. “Disciples are multiplying greatly and even priests, imams and sheikhs are becoming obedience to the faith. So I no longer doubt that we can finish the task in this generation.”

The article lists several strategies for taking the gospel to the Muslim world. Included are the following:

  • “Prepare to spend a long time making strong disciples, but anticipate miraculous accelerations.”
  • “Expect the hardest places to yield the greatest results.”

Trousdale concludes, “The irony is that Muslims in scores of different people groups are submitting their lives to Jesus at rates that are much faster than most church growth in North America. And it is happening, not by making the gospel journey somehow easier to traverse, but by focusing from the first day on making obedient disciples who are daily seeking to follow Jesus and obey his will. That is the pathway over which hundreds of thousands of Muslims have come to Jesus.”

A guest speaker at our church recently commented about the massive bloodshed that can be anticipated if the Muslim world is converted. This might be the case but let us not forget that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church!

Take, as a fourth example, the issue of evangelism. We need to realise that this record of Stephen’s death is not a fabrication. It is historical reality. Perhaps is the strongest evidence for its historicity is Saul’s conversion in Acts 9. There is every reason to believe that it was the way in which Stephen died that was used by the Spirit—in conjunction with His Word—to convict, convince and convert Saul.

Your living well and dying well may have a lot to do with how others will live and die. It may have a huge impact on your spouse, your children, your grandchildren, your neighbours, your colleagues, your fellow church members and even your enemies.

A sixth example might be the issue of sanctification. John Piper has said that sin is what we do when we are not satisfied with God. There is much wisdom in that observation. The antidote is our gaze. Clearly, Stephen’s preoccupation with the glory of God in the face of the Risen Lord empowered him to behave in a holy manner. And so it is with you and me.

Colossians 3:1-3 instructs believers to have a heavenly focus. This focus will enable you to overcome sinful habits and addictions (Philippians 4:13). It will allow you to break free from sinful bondage (Romans 6). Gaze at your all-powerful risen Lord and find your satisfaction and contentment and rest in Him!

A seventh example relates to local church life. I can testify that many times I have been tempted to despair with reference to the spiritual and numerical growth of BBC—and sometimes even with reference to its financial growth. And yet the risen Lord gives us hope. He enables regeneration. He empowers sanctification. He empowers reconciliation. He produces multiplication.

Take, as an eighth example, the trials that we face and the tribulations we are called to endure. Have you ever faced a difficulty and responded with, “This is all that I need!” or “I don’t need this!”? As a matter of fact, your circumstances are sovereignly directed by the risen Lord precisely because you need them! He gives you exactly what you need—whether you agree with His assessment or not!

Never separate Romans 8:28 from the wider context of vv. 31-34. Everything that happens in your life ultimately works to conform you to the image of Jesus Christ. You need everything you face in order to accomplish this goal. The risen Lord can help you to do what you might think is impossible.

Gazing at our risen Lord enables us to handle the challenge of delayed gratification. You will not always get what you want when you want it, but the risen Lord empowers perseverance (see 2 Timothy 4:7-8).

A ninth, and final, example relates to the ability to really believe the gospel when it counts the most—that is, when we die. If we know that Jesus has risen then we can die well.

A business principle says that “perception is reality.” We want to be careful with that concept, for what might appear to be reality is not always so. Yet if what we perceive is in fact reality then it will have a huge impact on both how we live—and on how we die.

I have had widows in our church express some envy that their spouse is in heaven and they are not. They do not fear death; they anticipate it with great excitement. How is such a disposition explained? It can only be explained by the fact that they have gazed and they continue to gaze into heaven, where Jesus is at the right hand of the Father. Are you able to face the reality of death—your own and that of others?

Stephen looked up and saw his Advocate. We need to do the same or else we will despair! As the beloved hymn goes,

When Satan tempts me to despair,
And tells me of the guilt within,
Upward I look and see Him there,
Who made an end to all my sin.
Because the sinless Saviour died
My sinful soul is counted free,
For God, the just, is satisfied
To look on Him and pardon me,
To look on Him and pardon me.

Gazing at the Risen Lord Equips Us with Graciousness

The resurrection made a profound difference in how Stephen responded to his enemies. Seeing the glory of God is why Jesus came to earth to live, die and rise again (see John 17). The reason that these men responded as they did was because they could not—would not—see the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. So they gnashed while Stephen gazed. While the Sanhedrin gnashed at Stephen, he kept gazing at the Son and so was able to be gracious to those who stoned him. And the same is expected of us who believe in the risen Lord.

It seems to me that Stephen did not see God’s glory and Jesus as two separate entities, but as one and the same. Certainly this was the view of John, who wrote “And we beheld His glory, the glory of the only begotten Son of God” (John 1:14). Paul concurred: “For it is the God who commanded the light to shine out of darkness, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6).

When, by God’s grace, we see such glory, it is to be expected that we will have a disposition that is humbled and therefore gracious to others. This is clearly seen here in the response of Stephen to his enemies in v. 60: “Then he knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.”

It is to be observed that Stephen spoke the truth to these men and used straightforward language in doing so. Yet his speech no doubt was at the same time “seasoned with grace” (cf. Colossians 4:16). When we truly believe that Jesus has risen from the dead, and when we truly believe that He is ascended and is at the right of the Father—in total, sovereign control of everything—then our disposition will reflect our belief. We will be gracious!

When your spouse disappoints you, your belief in the risen and ascended Lord will allow you to respond graciously. When your children do wrong, your belief will inform a gracious response. When your critics defame and demean you, when your enemies harm you, and when your fellow church members disappoint you, it is belief in the resurrected and ascended Lord that will enable you to be gracious. In other words, like Jesus (1 Peter 2:21-25), you will not respond in kind.

But again, this is supposing that Jesus is who He claimed to be, as evidenced by His resurrection. Consider these words of Tim Keller: “If Jesus rose from the dead, then you have to accept all that He said; if He didn’t rise from the dead, then why worry about any of what He said? The issue on which everything hangs is not whether or not you like His teaching but whether or not He rose from the dead.”

In other words, if Jesus has not risen, then go ahead and, like the Sanhedrin, pick up stones and take your best shot. But if you have come to see that your Saviour is risen and is your Advocate interceding for you, then trust Him that all things will work together for your good and for God’s glory, and then graciously respond as you are conformed to the character of Christ.

Related to this is the truth that the forgiven are forgiving. Paul said that Jesus “was raised because of our justification” (or “for our justification” in the KJV) (Romans 4:25). In other words it is because of the resurrection and the subsequent intercession of Christ that we are continually forgiven. And those who realise the enormity of this grace will be inclined to be gracious to others. A believer who is ungracious and bitter is one who needs help with his gaze.

Gazing at the Risen Lord Must Be Our Goal

Stephen knew where to look. He wanted to see the risen Lord! We must keep before us the truth of Jesus risen and ascended, not merely the benefits of this to us. We first need to be impressed with Jesus for who He is.

Stephen knew that Jesus rose from the dead, and this proof of His divine Sonship, and therefore of His Lordship, made a hugely profound difference in his life. It will in yours too.

If we want to stay focused then we must meet the requirement: We must, like Stephen, be filled with the Spirit. Several observations from this historical account are relevant to the theme of the risen Lord.

First, Stephen was filled with Holy Spirit because of the resurrection of Christ, and his being filled with the Holy Spirit enabled him to believe in the resurrection of Christ. As we have seen, apart from the Holy Spirit we would never believe that Jesus rose from the dead. But we continually need the ministry of the Holy Spirit to hold our gaze on the risen Lord.

Second, if we will live in the light of the reality of the resurrection then we will need to be filled with the Holy Spirit (John 16:13-14). The wonderful thing about this is that, if you are a believer, you can be! It will require immersion in the Scriptures, and a commitment to looking up rather than down, but you can enjoy the same gaze that Stephen enjoyed. While out running with a fellow church member recently, I spotted another runner wearing a T-shirt that said, “Running is mental.” Sometimes in running marathons, you just have to force yourself onwards, regardless of the temptations to quit. The Christian life often requires the same commitment. It is not always easy, but as we keep our eyes fixed on the finish line we can often push through when it feels as if we are about to collapse.

A third, and final, observation needs to be made with reference to how we can improve our gaze: by obediently following Christ, which will often put us into situations where we will be blessed to experience the reality of the resurrection. Stephen’s boldness resulted in his needing more grace, and in his case the grace was to see the risen Lord. When we commit ourselves to following Christ at a great cost then we too will need more grace. And when this happens we will find ourselves also experiencing more of the reality of the resurrection.

Think of the disciples in the early church and how they experienced the risen Lord time and again because they needed to. It was not a mere luxury but a necessity. God gave them what they needed when they needed it. Is our problem not that we are too self-sufficient because we are not challenged enough? Let us leave our comfort zone and then perhaps we will be in a far better vantage point from which we can see Jesus on the right hand of the Father.

Jesus was at the right hand of the Father. This was a point of fact. But only the eyes of faith could see it. So it is today. He is Lord and He has risen and ascended. Just because not all can see this does not diminish its reality.

Furthermore, those of us who can see have a great privilege and a great responsibility. Stephen’s “Behold!” was both an exclamation and an exhortation; it was a warning as well as an invitation. If we would see that Jesus has risen then we would be careful how we live. Further, if we would see the risen Saviour then we would warn and invite others.

Can you gaze at the risen Lord? By God’s grace you can begin to do so. By the grace of God you can refresh your gaze today. Let us do so and then help one another in this wonderful privilege. After all, Jesus has risen—indeed!