Stephen's Dying Prayer

Acts 7:59,60
59 And they stoned Stephen, calling upon God, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.
60 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.

This beautiful incident is misinterpreted by those who suppose that Stephen expected the Lord Jesus immediately to receive his "immortal soul" in heaven. This altogether contradicts Stephen's belief which he had just defined, and makes void the Bible doctrine concerning "spirit" and the "sleep" of the dead. Many of the "martyrs" when burning at the stake have made use of Stephen's words under this false impression. The word "martyr" is simply Greek for "witness," and many have suffered martyrdom for erroneous beliefs, like the victims under the car of Juggernaut. Their martyrdom proves their sincerity, but not that their belief was true. These remarks are made because Stephen, the first "martyr," has been held up as an ideal by many who have sought" martyrdom" under the mistaken impression that it atoned for past sins.

Stephen's faith.— There is "one faith" (Eph. 4:5), "the faith of Abraham" (Rom. 4:12). Stephen, in his "apology," began at Abraham and the promises that God made to him concerning Christ and the Land of Promise. God had promised Abraham all the land of Canaan for an everlasting possession, and also to his Seed (Christ, Gal. 3:16). But "he gave him none inheritance in it, no not so much as to set his foot on" (Acts 7:5). "By faith Abraham sojourned in the land of promise as in a strange country, dwelling in tabernacles with Isaac and Jacob, the heirs with him of the same promise" (Heb. 11:9). They "all died in faith, not having received the promises" (verse 13). Therefore they must be raised from the dead by Christ when he comes, that they may "inherit the land for ever." This was Abraham's faith. He saw the day of Christ afar off, and rejoiced (John 8:56); and his fervent belief in the resurrection of the body is attested by his offering of Isaac (Gen. 22:5; Heb. 11:19). This also was Stephen's faith, and it must be ours, for "If ye be Christ's, then are ye Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise" (Gal. 3:29). God has never promised heaven to the righteous." David is not ascended into the heavens" (Acts 2:34). "No man hath ascended up to heaven" (John 3:13). "The heavens are the Lord's, but the earth hath he given to the children of men" (Psa. 115:16).

Stephen's spirit.— The spirit of man is neither man nor man's, but the life power of God by which man lives. It was with God before man was created, and it goes back to God when man dies and ceases to be. "If God set his heart upon man, if he gather unto himself his spirit and his breath, all flesh shall perish together, and man shall turn again unto dust" (Job 34:14, 15). "Then shall the dust return to the earth as it was, and the spirit shall return to God who gave it" (Eccl. 12:7). God is "the God of the spirits of all flesh" (Num. 16:22). "Thou sendest forth thy spirit, they are created" (Psa. 104:30). If they die, God can "send forth his spirit" and make them alive again. Hence the language of the Lord Jesus himself when laying down his life in obedience to God's command : "Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit. And having said this, he gave up the spirit" (literally, "expired," died, Luke 23:46). But on the third day God "sent forth his spirit" and showed His Holy One the path of life, not suffering him to see corruption (Psa. 16:10, 11; Acts 2:31). "God raised him up the third day, and showed him openly ... unto witnesses chosen" (Acts 10:40). David, in trouble, had used the expression afterwards adopted by Christ and Stephen: "Into thy hand I commit my spirit" (Psa. 31:5). Like Abraham, he "saw the day of Christ," and the "everlasting covenant" was all his salvation and all his desire (2 Sam. 7; 23:1-7). Though he has "not ascended into the heavens," he is not lost. Christ will raise him up. Anticipating this, he said : "As for me, I will behold thy face in righteousness. I shall be satisfied, when I awake, with thy likeness" (Psa. 17:15). Like David, and like Christ, Stephen commended his spirit to God, because he hoped to get his life back by resurrection. In those days the Christians did not believe in getting eternal life in any other way than by the resurrection of the body. Had not Christ declared, "I am the resurrection and the life"? And had not he illustrated this divinely given power even in the days of his flesh more than once, but particularly in the raising of Lazarus? The popular interpretation of Stephen's beautiful prayer is really based upon a corruption of Christianity, for when Greek philosophy began to be introduced among the disciples, and they received the Platonic doctrine of the immortality of the soul, they at once began to discard the doctrine of the resurrection of the body.

Hence Paul has to rebuke some in Corinth, saying in effect, I preached the resurrection of Christ, and you believed it : "Now, if Christ be preached that he rose from the dead, how say some among you that there is no resurrection of the dead?" (1 Cor. 15:12). And he points out how they would make Christ a deceiver, Paul a "false witness," and salvation impossible! "If Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins. Then they also which are fallen asleep in Christ are perished" (verses 17, 18). "But now is Christ risen ... (and) as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. But every man in his own order: Christ the firstfruits; afterwards they that are Christ's at his coming" (verses 20, 22, 23). Now Stephen was "Christ's," hence he "shall be made alive at his coming." And this was his faith and hope; and so he commended his spirit into the hands of the Lord Jesus. Paul afterwards exhorted the Colossians to do the like: "For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God. When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall ye also appear with him in glory" (Col. 3:3, 4).

"Asleep".— Till then, Stephen, with all God's righteous dead, is "asleep." "When he had said this, he fell asleep." If a modern clergyman had written the account instead of Luke, he would probably have put it thus: "When he had said this, he went to glory." At any rate, that is the style of Foxe's Book of Martyrs, which speaks of John Huss as follows: "The flames soon put an end to his mortal life, and wafted his undying spirit, which no fire on earth could subdue, or touch, to the regions of everlasting glory." This is what comes of "believing a lie" (2 Thess. 2:11). What room is there for resurrection in such a case? Was John Huss more honoured than David? We are not ungrateful to the "martyrs," but "let God be true." "Sleep" is a beautiful metaphor for death. Jesus used it, and was misunderstood: "Our friend Lazarus sleepeth" (John 11:11). But when the disciples took him literally, he said "plainly, Lazarus is dead." So we may say plainly, Stephen is dead. But "Many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake; some to everlasting life" (Dan. 12:2). And among them Stephen, at that time, namely, "the time of the end," when Christ comes. "Awake and sing, ye that dwell in dust; for thy dew is as the dew of herbs, and the earth shall cast out the dead" (Isa. 26:19). This will be when "the Lord cometh out of his place" and when his "judgments are in the earth" (verses 21, 9). Then David will "awake" to be satisfied with the divine likeness. "Now are we the sons of God," says John, "but it doth not yet appear what we shall be: but we know that when he shall appear, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. And every man that hath this hope in him purifieth himself, even as he is pure" (1 John 3:2). Thus did Stephen, and died for his testimony. And Jesus says : "He that loseth his life for my sake shall find it" (Matt. 10:39).

Reproduced from: The Christadelphian Shield: Papers Explanatory of Wrested Scriptures