“But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:55).
The scene into which we are breaking is this: Stephen, “full of grace and power” (Acts 6:8), has been proclaiming the gospel with great authority and performing miracles among the common people. In what has become typical modus operandi for the Jewish leaders, when they are unable to publicly resist the force of Stephen’s words they privately stage a mock trial, complete with a lineup of fake, paid-off witnesses. When Stephen is brought to trial, though, his Lord vindicates him before the entire council, making his face to shine with the radiance of an angel.
The high priest asks Stephen whether these charges against him are valid. Stephen replies with one of the boldest and most convicting sermons recorded in Scripture. As he lists the sinful history of the Jewish people from Joseph all the way to Jesus, he brings his message to a climactic ending with the resounding rhetorical question, “What godly messengers have you not persecuted or killed?”
The august body of Jewish scholars, lawyers, and priests respond with all the dignity and intelligence that one might expect from a tantrum-throwing three-year-old — they stop up their ears, gnash on him with their teeth, and then perpetrate a mob execution. Before they lay hands on him, however, Luke records for us the contrasting serenity of Stephen’s demeanor: “But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.”
Facing a Trial
There are several faith lessons that we can reap from the victorious martyrdom of Stephen, and all of them break the mold of our expectations — but, then, what should we expect when studying the features of a man who is facing death, but sees only heaven?
Perhaps the first and most evident lesson that we can garner is this: it is practical to glue our gaze heavenward. Indeed, no one could claim to be in any more significant distress, or in more chaotic circumstances, than those in which Stephen found himself. And yet we astoundingly are confronted with a man full of peace and forgiveness in the midst of the turbulence and vengeance. What made the difference? Stephen was facing a trial, but he was gazing into heaven.
In this age of the do-it-yourself hardware store, the scientific method, and microwaveable fine cuisine (at least if you believe the labels), we pride ourselves on being practical people. “Give me the solution right now, one that I can plug into a clear-cut formula, and let me resolve this problem on my own.” The idea of looking for help or hope in another world is patently impractical and not nearly scientific enough. Those dear old people who smile all the time and talk about how they can’t wait to get to heaven must be slightly daft or simply naïve. Like the bumper sticker says, “If you’re not thoroughly confused, then you just don’t understand the situation.”
With that said, we get a very different picture as we look to the Bible for our answers and examples. We find a people who faced the hardships of voluntary poverty and imprisonment in order to spread the news that Jesus is in heaven and is coming again to take those that love Him back with Him. In fact, He’s preparing your place with Him right now! Because of this confident expectation, countless saints have been encouraged to face everything from playground taunting to physical torture.
As strange as it still may sound to our modern ears, the Bible plainly intimates there is something profoundly practical about contemplating heaven. It seems the more confident that we are that this planet is not our home, the less we cling to it. The more we consider the reality of eternity, the less we expect to find satisfaction in this short life itself, and as we give up hope of finding our fulfillment in this life, we paradoxically find a genuine, very durable here-and-now joy because of our “yes, come, Lord Jesus” mindset.
The writer of Hebrews penned down his gratitude to those who had assisted him throughout the course of his imprisonment, noting the single factor that, in the face of open opposition and flagrant abuse, gave them the courage and sheer chutzpah to continue ministering in the name of Jesus Christ: “For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one” (Hebrews 10:34).
Notice that this was not a mere intellectual affirmation of an afterlife. Nor was it a shaky inclination based on what the preacher had told them. You knew that you yourselves — in their heart of hearts, with every fiber of their spiritual being, they were persuaded that they had such a teeming wealth in heaven that it could not possibly be diminished by what happened to their earthly goods here and now. They were joyfully and genuinely unaffected by the vandalism that they suffered because their gaze was glued to the enduring affluence of heaven.
It is evident that our Lord meant for us to be struck with the sheer value of the kingdom of heaven. In His parable of “the pearl of great value,” Jesus takes great pains to emphasize its inestimable worth (Matthew 13:45,46). He explains that the man who found the pearl was not some schoolboy or junk collector who might mistake a bauble for a treasure; instead, Jesus says that this man was a merchant, one who would be eminently qualified to appraise the pearl correctly.
Given his experience and knowledgeable eye for quality and market value, when this merchantman came across this particular pearl, he swiftly sold everything that he had in order to secure this great treasure. In other words, it was not even close to an even trade. Everything he had was well worth the value of the pearl. And Jesus would have us to understand the same about the kingdom of heaven: even giving up everything we have is well worth the value of this pearl.
From Stephen’s calm, radiant countenance in the midst of a personal crisis and crucible we learn that the serious and perpetual consideration of heaven—far from being an impractical solution to the real troubles that we face—is the fire that illuminates and warms our weary souls when sorrow or discouragement has thrown a wet blanket on all our fondest hopes or dreams for this life. It is one beam that can break through even the darkest of clouds.
Filled with the Holy Ghost
How was Stephen able to look steadfastly into heaven? He was “full of the Holy Ghost.” Don’t let the wonder of that statement slip by you. Stephen was full of God! Now considering the fact that Solomon declared “the heaven and heaven of heavens” (1 Kings 8:27) cannot contain God, it is no great surprise that such an infinite God can fill a single soul to overflowing. However, it is the stuff of which the child of God’s dreams are made to be filled by the all-fulfilling God. The marvel is not that God can, but that God does fill us with Himself.
The Bible makes it abundantly clear that being “full of the Holy Ghost” is not some party trick or pseudo-spiritual experience by which one is enabled to babble incoherently or create chaos in a worship service. We could do that just fine on our own, without any aid from the Holy Ghost.
Instead, being filled with the Spirit means that we, as temples of the Holy Ghost, are flooded with the all-consuming, overwhelming realization of Christ’s love and its implications for our life and the afterlife. This knowledge is deeply rooted in the person of Christ and gleefully explores the benefits of Christ. This is why Paul would pray for the church members at Ephesus that they might “comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:18,19).
As one of the chief expressions of Christ’s love for us, He promises His children that we will one day enjoy the very same bliss of heaven to which He has now returned and for which He is even now preparing us. If we, as believers, could only comprehend that heaven is the end that Jesus has prepared for us, perhaps we would face trials, and even death, more like Stephen faced them. Rather than God’s having to grab us by the scruff of the neck in order to bring us to heaven, we would rush (or in Peter’s words, be “hastening” toward) the opportunity to enjoy the presence of our Savior in perfect happiness forever.
Beloved, are you filled with the Holy Spirit? Or are you filled with cares, fears, or affections that are earth-bound and therefore blind to the glories of God and His heaven? To know the love of Christ is our delightful duty! To study His face in His word, like a blind lover exploring the face of her companion with her fingers, each form and each facet bringing ever-greater elation and affection.
Fastened on the Glory of God
When we are filled with the Holy Spirit, it is safe to say that our vision will be fastened, Stephen-like, on the glory of God. Not only will the glory of God be the aim of all that we do, but it will be the single, glowing object in the center of all that we see. Those who come to know the love of Christ serve God, not out of slavish fear or sluggish duty, but out of a desire to see more and more of the beatific light that has shined into their souls.
No matter what the distractions, no matter what the difficulties, if our gaze is fixed on heaven and upon God’s glory, we will be enabled to see that Jesus is “on the right hand of God” and that He is ruling now and forever. Jesus is at the head of His church, with all things placed under His feet, far above every president and political power — “not only in this age,” Paul reminds us, “but also in the one to come” (Ephesians 1:19-22). Jesus is just as much in control of earth now as He will be in heaven for eternity! That is the precise import of Paul’s words.
Have you fastened your gaze upon Jesus in heaven? Do you look steadfastly to that place, even when all around you is uncertainty, pain, or trouble? If so, then you will see the glory of God in the midst of the filth of the world; you will see Jesus on the right hand of God even when everything seems out of control, and you will see the heavens opened when every door on earth seems closed.