The Suffering Church - Acts 6:8 - 8:1

This is a sermon by Peter Birnie from the Riverside Church service on 21st November 2021.

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Acts 6 v 8-8v1 “The Suffering Church”


“When we hear about bad things happening, especially when lives of many are lost or damaged at the hands of a few, we need to remind ourselves that people are generally good.” So begins an article on CNN news that continued later with this interesting line; “Remember, we start from a place of moral purity.” I wonder if that is how you see the world? We are basically good, we start from a default position of innocence and then some people make some bad choices.

If that is how you see things then it is tempting to ask you for some of whatever it is that you are taking (it would be a nice relief to be so outrageously optimistic even for a few hours!)  But in reality, how on earth can anyone look around at the way the world is right now, or look within themselves at the way they are right now, and still come to the conclusion that the human heart is basically pure with a few dusty spots rather than being utterly filthy and diseased with just a few tiny spots of health and wholeness.

If somehow you have been able up to this point in life to stubbornly ignore the reality of what sin has done to the human heart and to the world in general, then today’s passage of scripture surely has got to finally change all that. Because in this part of the bible, Stephen, a good man, full of grace, confronts people who were regarded as the leaders in society about the despicable thing they did when they murdered Jesus, the only fully innocent man ever to live. And what happens next?

The human heart is so full of evil, so twisted by sin, so utterly filthy, that not only did these respected men put the loving God who made us to death by crucifixion, but when confronted by this in the cold light of day, they smashed the life out of their accuser with stones and rocks. Sin has meant that the human heart is absolutely opposed to Jesus – we are not generally good and we do not come from a place of moral purity. It is quite the opposite and as a result, the church (that group of people united to Jesus by his death and closely associated with Jesus by their witness and gospel proclamation) the church is going to suffer.


1) The church is to suffer for Jesus (v51-53)


And in verses 51-53 we see that the church is to suffer for Jesus. The whole of chapter 7, from verse 2 onwards records Stephen’s sermon in front of the Sanhedrin, the court of ruling Jews in Jerusalem. His sermon is a summary of the history of the people of Israel. It covers the time from Genesis 12 when God calls Abraham and makes wonderful promises, through to the end of Genesis when Jacob’s family go into Egypt via Joseph, then to the time of Moses when God rescued his people from Egypt and took them to the promised land despite their rebellion and idolatry, and on to Joshua conquering the land, David ruling the land and Solomon building a Temple in the land.

Quite a long sermon. And the Sanhedrin listen to all this without any reaction. But then Stephen gets to verse 51 and changes gear; rather than a history lesson he now presses the point of all that history towards the hearts of his listeners. He goes from speaking truth about their history to speaking truth about the identity and mission of Jesus … “Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him.”

In our November Monday night training session on Zoom we defined a “gospel conversation” as the following;

  • Deals with the identity, purpose and achievements of Jesus (He is God, he came to save sinners, he died on the cross, rose again, rules now, and is returning to judge and bring his people home)


  • Deals with the real state of the human heart (Genesis 3 stuff, the brokenness of the world, the sin that shows itself in tiny ways and huge ways, our helplessness and need, the uselessness of religion or morality to meet it)


  • Presses home the need for people to respond (admit you are part of the problem, come to Jesus for forgiveness and a new life of following him)

One of the reasons we don’t suffer much for being Christians is because we stop short where Stephen didn’t. Most of us are happy to declare some Christian truth, to talk a bit about Jesus and even to explain that church matters a lot to us.

But we hold back on who Jesus is, we hold back on how guilty and sinful we all are, we hold back on pressing people to respond to this truth. Stephen doesn’t stop - he holds Jesus up as the righteous promised one and he presses the gospel message into the hard hearts of the Sanhedrin – “you killed him – you are stubborn and sinful and so you betrayed and murdered the one God had sent.” And the Sanhedrin absolutely hate it;


“When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him.”


Why? Because the normal state of the human heart is diseased and ruined by sin. It is filled with jealousy (7v9), disobedience, stubbornness, rejection of God (7v39), and idolatry (7v41). And so the human heart is completely and utterly opposed to Jesus Christ who demands the throne of our hearts, who demands our allegiance to him rather than to ourselves, who died so that rebels could be changed, who rose again so that idolaters could begin to worship God as they should. Stephen suffered because he proclaimed this Jesus Christ and we are to follow in exactly the same path, this local church is to suffer FOR Jesus.




2) The church is to suffer with Jesus (v54-58)


And our passage gives us a brilliant example of a great biblical truth - as we suffer for Jesus, Jesus lives and reigns within us. The church in its suffering suffers with Jesus. Jesus is with us as we suffer for his name in small ways or great ways. In verse 54 the Sanhedrin are gnashing their teeth at Stephen, absolutely furious with him. The forces of evil that put Jesus to death are gathering all round this grace-filled man of God and what happens? Verse 55 “But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.”   

Stephen didn’t stop short of proclaiming the real gospel and as a result he is now facing a level of suffering that most of us know very little about. But along with that suffering, he is receiving a blessing that far outweighs the cost. As he walks the same road as Jesus, united to him by Jesus’ death, he gets to see that Jesus is with him in an incredible, very special way.

And that is the best that being in this world can offer. There is nothing else that is anywhere near as good as being able to see the glory of the God who made us. That is the future that Christ’s blood has guaranteed for all of the sinners who would put their trust in him. We have certain glory ahead of us, glory that we cannot really imagine right now (1 Corinthians no eye has seen, no ear has heard no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him). We have an incredible future – but we get tastes of it now as we draw close to God.

If Stephen had stopped short of proclaiming Jesus out of fear for what it might bring, if Stephen had blunted the truth a bit so that he could have been more comfortable then he probably would have prolonged his earthly life a little but he would have missed out on something far more weighty and nourishing and wonderful. Know this - it was through godly suffering that Stephen got to fix his eyes on his God and saviour. And the same goes for us. It is in suffering for Jesus that we know with most certainty that we are with Jesus; the door that leads to suffering is also the door that leads to great blessing.


Those of us who have come to Jesus for forgiveness of our sin and a new life of following him filled with his Spirit (do it now if you have never), we are people united with Christ and so when we take up our cross and suffer we receive some amazing blessings that nothing else apart from suffering can properly deliver. 


  • We will know the closeness of that unity most

We have to depend upon him for strength and comfort


  • We will draw most near to him and see him most clearly

Our eyes are fixed on the one who loves us so much



  • We will be blessed and tended to by him

God loves to comfort the needy (Matthew 11)


  • We will hate sin more and long more for holiness

Suffering shows us worth – it allows us to delight in God’s word and promises and as a result turn away from what is so bad for us. John Piper write this helpful little paragraph;

“The word of God’s promise is like throwing open a great window of bright morning sunlight on the roaches of sin masquerading as satisfying pleasures in our hearts. God has given you his good news, his promises, his word to protect you from the deep deceptions of sin that try to harden your heart and lure it away from God and lead it to destruction.”

That is so helpful. God’s word is never more precious to us than when we are faced with our deepest need in the middle of suffering – and that word shows us what is sweet and what is bitter. Christ Church Riverside, let us stop holding back as we proclaim and live for Jesus, when we suffer for Jesus we will be suffering with Jesus and there is no surer way to blessing and delight.


3) The church is to suffer like Jesus (v59-8v3)

But suffering is very hard. We don’t want it and our tendency is to grumble, even when we are going through the lightest of trials. Not so with Stephen in verse 59 and 60.


“While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit”. Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep.”

This is the very height of what Christians would call “suffering well.” Stephen sounds really like Jesus as Jesus died on the cross. ‘Receive my spirit’ and ‘don’t hold this sin against them’ – what a privilege and testimony that the last words of Stephen, a man full of grace, matched some of the last words of his saviour, who is grace to us. And then he fell asleep. What an incredible way to describe such a violent death. ‘He fell asleep.’

I love that description of Stephens entry into eternity with his Lord and Saviour. There are rocks flying about and blood spilt everywhere and yet this man of God, completely at peace in the middle of such conflict, united so closely with his saviour that he even sounds like him in his last moments, simply closes his eyes on this life and though we don’t read it, in his next conscious moment he opens them to see his saviour face to face.

This is what an American theologian writes about that moment when a saint goes to sleep here on this earth -  

“We may be sure that the first 5 minutes after death will bring experiences for the soul far more remarkable and awesome than anything that has ever been experienced in this world. Picture even faintly, if you can, those first moments in glory land.

Undoubtedly the person first of all sees Christ his saviour, the one by whose redemptive work he has been brought to salvation, and whose he is… Five minutes after he is in heaven he will be overwhelmed by truths that he had known all along but somehow had never fully grasped.” 

What a certain and wonderful future Christians have. Stephen didn’t drum that attitude up himself, he wasn’t some sort of stoic. Instead, Jesus working in him, filling him with the Spirit, empowered and enabled him to end well. CC Riverside, as Jesus reigns in us we will be able to suffer well, we will be able to suffer in confidence because we know that God has us in his hands, he is ready to receive our spirits. And we will be able to suffer with compassion even for those who might be causing our suffering.

YOU cannot do this by yourself because by yourself your heart is rotten and opposed to Jesus, but when you become a Christian, united with Jesus you will do this as he reigns in you and heals your heart and gets you ready for heaven. The church is to suffer like Jesus and when we do, we will be excited about the day when we go to be with him forever. That Jonathan Edwards quote in Melvin and Heather’s email on Friday is worth hearing again at this point; ‘Fathers and mothers, husbands, wives or children or the company of earthly friends are but shadows; but the enjoyment of God is the substance. These are but scattered beams, God is the sun. These are but streams, but God is the fountain. These are but  drops, but God is the ocean. Therefore it become us to spend this life only as a journey towards heaven.’

I want to finish by reading Revelation 7 v 9-17 and in it we see the future of those who suffered because they were united with Jesus Christ; Revelation 7 v 9-17 Let’s pray.

Acts 6 v 8-8v3 “The Suffering Church” Handout

Intro: What is your view on the human heart?


                 1) The church is to suffer FOR Jesus (v51-53)


The Sanhedrin listen until Stephen gets to Jesus


Gospel conversations:

  • Deal with the identity, purpose and achievements of Jesus



  • Deal with the real state of the human heart



  • Press home the need for people to respond


Stephen did not hold back when it comes to Jesus, we MUST NOT hold back. We must be prepared to suffer FOR Jesus.



                           2) The church is to suffer WITH Jesus (v54-58)


Stephen experienced God in a special way in suffering



We are people united with Christ and so when we take up our cross and suffer;


  • We will know the closeness of that unity most


  • We will draw most near to him and see him most clearly


  • We will be blessed and tended to by him


  • We will hate sin more and long more for holiness




                        3) The church is to suffer LIKE Jesus (v59-8v3)


As Jesus reigns in us we can suffer WELL (like Jesus on the cross);

“Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” 


  • We suffer in confidence that God has us in his hands



  • We suffer with compassion even for our enemies



Home Group Questions on Acts 6v8 – 8v3

1) Read verses 51-53. Which parts of the following definition of a gospel conversation are most challenging to you?

      Gospel conversations

  • Deal with the identity, purpose and achievements of Jesus


  • Deal with the real state of the human heart


  • Press home the need for people to respond


2) Read verses 54-56. How was Stephen blessed in the middle of suffering? What are some of the blessings on offer to us if we are prepared to suffer for Jesus?



3) Read verses 57-60. How do they remind you of Jesus on the cross? What would it look like for us to suffer with both confidence in God and compassion for people?

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