By Jeremiah Greever
I’m currently preaching through the book of Acts at the church I pastor – First Baptist St. John. My congregation has graciously sat through my Martyn Lloyd-Jones approach to Acts – slow and intentional exegesis. After 15 months of walking through Acts, we have come to the death of the first Christian martyr recorded in Acts 7:60 – Stephen. There are many fascinating details to Stephen’s killing (ex. his courage in preaching to his killers, his similarities to Christ in death, his certainty of assurance in death, etc.), but perhaps the most interesting is that Stephen is not unique. While he certainly is unique in his death being recorded in the revealed Word of God, he’s not unique in being killed for the faith and his powerful final words.
As Protestants everywhere celebrated the 500th anniversary of the Reformation last October 2017, I am reminded of the many dear men and women of the faith who were martyred for their faith during the Reformation. As I’ve considered Stephen’s death, I’m gripped by the similarities between his and many of the Reformer’s final words as they came to the end.
For instance, John Hus who was burned at the stake in 1415 with Wycliffe’s Bibles as fodder, exclaimed at the end, “in 100 years, God will raise up a man whose calls for reform cannot be suppressed.” William Tyndale, stated before being strangled and burned at the stake in 1536, “Lord, open the king of England’s eyes!” Another influential reformer – Hugh Latimer – famously encouraged a fellow martyr at the end, “Be of good cheer, Master Ridley, and play the man, for we shall this day light such a candle in England as I trust by God’s grace shall never be put out.” Lady Jane Grey wrote to her 14-year-old sister, Katherine, a day or two before she was martyred, “Live to die, that by death you may enter into eternal life, and then enjoy the life that Christ has gained for you by His death. Don’t think that just because you are now young your life will be long, because young and old die as God wills.”
Other lesser known martyrs of the Reformation documented in Foxe’s book of Martyrs include Laurence Ghest who was burned at Salisbury in 1508 and whose ‘Mind attempted to be swayed by fatherly affection for wife and seven children’ (Foxe, Vol 4, page 126-7). Or Matthieu Dimonet who was burned at Lyons and suffered “Great problems with the temptations of his parents, brethren and kinfolks, and the sorrow of his mother, nevertheless he endured to the end.” (Foxe, V 4, page 414). These and many other martyrs of the Reformation remained determined in the certainty of death to look to the One who had saved and sustained them.
And as we remember these dear Christian brothers and sisters, we remember that many others throughout history have given their lives for the truth. Hebrews 11:35-38 is a firm reminder that for centuries Christians, nameless and forgotten by the world, have given their lives for a greater cause than themselves. While it is good to remember these dear Christians of the faith for their obedience even to death, we must be careful not to venerate these humans. As fallen humanity, we have tendencies to always make idols of especially good things like Christians who have given their lives for the faith.
Instead of venerating these saints of old and trying to emulate their sacrifice, Christians should follow their examples of looking solely to Christ at the end of life. I’m struck at the emphasis of many Christians at the point of death. Their focus is always on Christ, His resurrection, and His faithfulness in the midst of persecution and death. After experiencing a vision of the Son of Man awaiting his presence, Stephen’s final words are recorded in Acts 7:59-60, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit!” and “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” In Moses’ final address to Israel before his death, he declares in Deuteronomy 33:26, “There is none like the God of Jeshurun (Israel).” King David’s final recorded words were, “The anointed of the God of Jacob.” (2 Sam. 23:1) Even Paul’s final letter, likely written near the end of his life, concludes with the words, “The Lord be with your spirit. Grace be with you.” (2 Tim. 4:22).
The biblical trend is obvious – God’s people at the end of life are focused on God and His faithfulness, rather than on themselves or other earthly sentiments. The application for believers is equally obvious – follow the example set by both our biblical and Reformation forefathers and focus on Christ until the end. Run the race with endurance that is set before us (Heb. 12:1) until the very end. And when the final days on earth come for each of us, may we be found looking solely to Christ, the author and perfecter of our faith.
Jeremiah Greever is a professor of Bible at Missouri Baptist University and pastor of First Baptist Church St. John in St. Louis, MO. He is a part of the leadership team of Founders Midwest and is an occasional speaker at the annual Southern Baptist Founders Conference Midwest. If you would like to attend the Southern Baptist Founders Conference Midwest, be sure to check out our Facebook page or visit our website for more information.