December 5, 2004

The Love of Christ Compels Us to Lay Down Our Lives for Christ
Acts 6:8-7:1, 7:51-60

The story of Jim Elliot is, I suppose, quite familiar to many of you by now. In 1956, Jim and four companions flew their MAF Piper plane across Ecuador in Latin America in order to take the Gospel to the notoriously fierce Auca Indians for the very first time. Jim and his friends had previously air-dropped various gifts to the Aucas, hoping to create a climate of good will. On one particular day in January, 1956, these five passionate missionaries finally landed their plane just beside the Curaray River, and they actually enjoyed several friendly contacts with members of the Auca tribe. Just a few days after landing, however—January 8, 1956—Jim and his friends were mercilessly speared to death by Auca warriors. The event was sufficiently noteworthy that Life magazine ran a ten-page article detailing the mission and deaths of Elliot and his friends.

Among the many thoughts that still remain with me from this story, I recall a comment that Elizabeth Elliot, Jim’s widow, made when I first heard her speak nearly 30 years ago. She commented that Jim did in fact not lose his life at the hands of the Auca Indians of Ecuador in 1956, but rather a few years earlier back in Wheaton, Illinois, as an undergraduate when he promised the Lord that he would do whatever he asked and go wherever he called. “Jim died that day in Wheaton,” Elizabeth suggested, “not in the hills of Ecuador.” What happened in Ecuador in January, 1956, was simply the final step in Jim’s living out that earlier promise.

Last week, we looked together at the story of the Apostle Paul’s conversion in Acts 9. I suggested to you then that, when the light of Christ overwhelms us, it enables us to take an honest look at ourselves. Who are we? Where are we going? What do we think and believe? What are our highest priorities? What are we doing with our lives? As we begin to see ourselves as we really are, we ought to respond by committing ourselves—all that we are and everything that we have—to the Lord. We should, like Paul, lay down our lives—lock, stock, and barrel—for Christ.

For some followers of Jesus, this act of laying down their lives results in their actually forfeiting their physical lives whether they say anything or not. There are Christians in the world today, as there have been throughout history, who suffer for Christ simply because of where they are. They don’t have to say or do anything in particular to evoke the wrath of those around them. These Christians live in such notoriously hostile places as Algeria, Indonesia, the Sudan, North Korea and northern India where they, like the Armenians and Jews in Europe during the first half of the 20th century, often face persecution without ever opening their mouths or committing an offensive act. The fact that they are Christians is enough in and of itself.

But the call to lay down our lives is not limited to our brothers and sisters living under such dire circumstances. In fact, Christ’s love compels all of us to lay down our lives, whoever and wherever we are. Jim Elliot, for example, did not live in a particularly hostile place. He grew up in Oregon and went to school in small-town Illinois. And for that matter, Stephen himself here in Acts 6-7 did not live is such a naturally hostile environment. Many of the people in Stephen’s day responded warmly to the gospel, at least initially. Rather, both Jim and Stephen faced harsh treatment because they had made earlier decisions for Christ that forced them to leave their comfort zones and to enter threatening situations. For Jim, leaving his comfort zone resulted in his serving among the Auca Indians in Ecuador. For Stephen, it meant living more boldly and speaking more honestly among his fellow Jews at home right in Jerusalem.

Stephen quite literally comes onto the stage out of nowhere. When the need arose for people to be selected from the community to wait on tables, Stephen was one of seven individuals chosen (ch.6). He was not one of the original disciples, not one of the primary actors, and certainly not one of the “big wigs” of the early church. And yet his fate here serves as a major turning point in the book of Acts.

Up to this point in Acts, Luke has provided occasional descriptions of escalating ill-will toward the early followers of Jesus. While Luke has assured us that the Gospel has spread effectively and that the Church has grown, he also informs us that such growth did not come without a struggle. Peter and John were taken before the authorities in chapter 4 and sternly warned. The apostles were arrested in chapter 5 and publicly whipped. Now, this escalating hostility worsens again as a collection of Hellenistic Jews from various locations oppose Stephen, incite a mob against him, and create such an uproar that he is not only interrogated, but ultimately stoned. But why? What did Stephen do, if anything, to get himself in such a terrible situation.

Stephen, for one thing, was clearly involved in far more than waiting on tables. As important a job as that was and is, Stephen quickly involved himself in spreading the Gospel in more public ways. Like the other Christ-compelled and Spirit-empowered disciples, Stephen actively proclaimed and lived out his faith in Jesus. He was, to put it plainly, up front about it. He performed great wonders and signs among the people, Luke informs us. It was, in fact, these acts of ministry that caused increasing conflict between him and his detractors in the first place. Had he remained quiet, had he minded his own business, had he refused to engage in any public display of his faith, chances are that this entire ordeal would never have happened. But he couldn’t remain silent and uninvolved. He had, after all, already laid down his life for Christ some time ago. The circumstances around him—unfriendly comments and false accusations—could not change that.

But Stephen does more than simply live out his faith in a radical way. As the mob’s reaction grows more intense and the council questions him concerning the reliability of the charges brought against him, Stephen has every opportunity to back down. It is, quite clearly, an opportunity that he chooses to ignore. Instead, he speaks out all the more boldly. Stephen’s opponents here accuse him, in essence, of reinterpreting the law. These are rigid traditionalists opposing him here, traditionalists who want more than anything to protect their understanding of God and their interpretation of the Scriptures. “Stephen poked fun at Moses,” they cried. “Stephen doesn’t take the Bible seriously,” they mocked.

Stephen, to their dismay, is clearly up to the task, and he refuses to allow their narrow-minded traditionalism and their self-centered theology to remain unchecked. In what amounts to a family feud arguing over stories from their shared past, Stephen provides a brief and selective overview of Jewish history. All along the way, he inserts jab after jab against his opponents and people like them throughout history. Although God was with Joseph, he begins, the patriarchs were jealous of him and sold him into Egypt (7:9). Years later, the people of Israel rejected Moses and were unwilling to obey him (7:35-39). Still later, the same people who had rejected Moses manipulated his brother, Aaron, into fashioning a golden calf that they then fell down and worshiped.

But Stephen throws all caution to the wind when he brings up the subject of King Solomon. Solomon built the temple, and the temple was a special place—the only place—where God could be rightly worshiped. “Hogwash,” Stephen responds. Solomon should have known, he continues, that “God does not dwell in houses made by human hands.” And in quoting from Isaiah 66, Stephen argues that the very temple itself is a sign of unfaithfulness to God—the whole of Israel’s history is nothing but a dismal record of one failure after another. “And you accuse me of making a mockery of the law,” Stephen insinuates. “You guys haven’t gotten anything right—you are stiff-necked and stubborn.”

Needless to say, this is far more than the people are prepared to endure. They became enraged, Luke tells us, and they ground their teeth at Stephen. And as he continues to speak, they can do nothing but cover their ears, as though a screaming train is passing by. Without further delay, this now outraged mob drags Stephen outside of the city and stones him to death. Why? Because he had the nerve to stand up against them. Because he had the audacity to rescue the Scriptures from their unhealthy interpretations. Because he refused to leave the status quo go on unchecked. Because he had laid down his life for Christ sometime before, and the simple threat of an angry mob and an interrogating council could hardly change that.

As an outsider coming into the Brethren in Christ years ago, I was deeply impressed by some of the stories that I heard about many of our spiritual ancestors throughout the centuries. I’ve thought often about people like Conrad Grebel, Felix Manz, Balthazar Hubmaier, Susanna Doucher, George Blaurock, Michael Sattler and many others who lived lives of radical discipleship and who spoke boldly in their attempts to proclaim the Gospel. Their views of Scripture and baptism, among other things, constantly brought them into conflict with the religious establishment of the 16th century, yet they served the Lord without fear. Most of them became martyrs, like Stephen, but they would all agree that they had actually died earlier when they were compelled by Christ’s love and empowered by the Holy Spirit to follow the Lord wherever he led them.

That is what Jim Elliot did. And that is what the love of Christ compels us to do. We live in a day and age when it is fashionable to believe whatever we want. This is a time when we are asked to accept and respect whatever everyone around us thinks. It is a day and age when even the church seems to have embraced rather deficient readings of the Scriptures that have left us weak and impotent. I can’t help but wonder at times if we need to be a bit bolder, a bit more honest, a bit more prophetic. If Stephen visited with us today, he would certainly express an abhorrence for lukewarm Christianity. The love of Christ, he believed, compels us to sacrifice our all.