Welsh stained glass window, Church of St. Stephen, Old Radnor, Powys, Wales
The sixth and seventh chapters of Acts tell the story of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Stephen was, “a man full of God’s grace and power, and he did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people” (Acts 6:8). This brought Stephen much attention and much opposition. Before long, he was arrested and charged with blasphemy.
In the first verse of chapter seven, the high priest asked Stephen if the charges were true. Stephen responded by proclaiming the story of how Jesus was the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies of a Messiah. It was a great speech, but not what the chief priests wanted to hear or believe. Verse 54 says it made them furious. The story concludes with these verses:
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. “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. 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 (Acts 7:55-58a…59-60).
Do you notice anything about these last words of Stephen? Stephen’s last words are very similar to the last words of Jesus, as he was being executed; also, after a mob demanded his death because they did not like what he had to say.
Jesus had prayed from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Stephen, while being stoned to death, prayed for those throwing the stones. “Lord,” he prayed, “Do not hold this sin against them.” At the end, Jesus prayed, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”
This is no coincidence. Stephen was a follower of Jesus and was trying to pattern his life on what he had been taught about Jesus. Not only does Jesus teach us how to live, he also teaches us how to die. Stephen shows everyone what it means to believe in Jesus in life and in death. He had learned from Jesus, and so he dies like Jesus, with a prayer of forgiveness on his lips, and a prayer of hope. “Lord Jesus,” he prayed, “receive my spirit.”
There is an old expression—you have probably said it yourself. When things are hopeless for someone, and when they don’t have any chance of making it, we sometimes say, “He doesn’t have a prayer;” it is so hopeless, he is so out of luck and out of options, there is not anything the doctors can do anymore, and not even God can help him now. He doesn’t have a prayer.
This might be a familiar expression in our everyday speech, but it is not a Bible verse. You will not find such ultimate hopelessness anywhere in the Bible for anyone who is still trusting in God. With God, we always have a prayer, even when things are most hopeless and we are most helpless.
It would be hard to find a more hopeless case than Stephen, standing alone against an angry mob, all of whom were picking up large rocks to throw at his head. It was by all outward appearances a hopeless predicament. He was, in fact, just a few moments away from death. Anyone looking at Stephen that day could certainly have said, “That guy doesn’t have a prayer.”
But, with God, we always have a prayer, even in death; and with his dying breath, Stephen prayed a prayer he learned from Jesus: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit,” and he died.
Stephen died just like Jesus showed him how to die; not without hope, but with a prayer. And Stephen had learned not only that prayer from Jesus, he had also knew and believed the promise from Jesus that was behind that prayer. Jesus had said:
“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God. Believe also in me. For my Father’s house has many rooms, and I am going there to prepare a place for you. And I will come back and take you to be with me, so that you also may be where I am” (John 14:1-3).
Stephen knew that even though his body was being destroyed, his spirit would survive and be going on to that place Jesus prepared for him. His body would soon be in the ground, but his spirit would go to be with Jesus where he would receive a new home and a new body.
A cemetery can be the most hopeless place on earth. Where are things more hopeless? There is another old expression that says, “Where there is life, there is hope.” But there is no life in a cemetery. It is all death. We go to cemeteries to bury the dead or to remember the dead. It is a place of no life and no hope—at least from all outward appearances.
But it is always comforting to see in the Bible what happens when Jesus gets near a cemetery; or a funeral procession or a death bed. He doesn’t stand around like there is no hope or there is nothing to be done about it. Jesus goes to work, giving life to the dead—bringing to life a dead little girl from the bed where she just died, stopping a funeral procession and waking up the young man in the casket, and calling Lazarus out of the tomb in the cemetery in which his dead body had been decaying for four long, hot days.
Jesus himself was, for a while, the resident of a cemetery where his body was placed. He was “crucified, dead, and buried,” as we say in the Creed. But not for long. For Jesus, and all who believe in him, the cemetery is just a temporary stop along the way. So now when we go out to that cemetery to bury our dead, we say these words: “In the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to Almighty God our loved one, and we commit their body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.”
Remember both parts of that blessing. We commit the body to the ground, but we commend to Almighty God our loved one. Just as Jesus prayed, “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit;” and as Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” We see a body, in a casket or an urn, in a vault, in the ground. But we believe in “The resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.” Believe that, and it will be for you.
Remember Stephen’s prayer. It is not hard to memorize, but read it over and over again for the next several days until it is firmly planted in your mind. “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” It is a wonderful prayer, and someday, like Stephen, you are going to need it. Maybe even yet this day. We never know. But the time will come when you will need it— perhaps in some road ditch as your blood and your life seeps from you, or in a hospital emergency room as everything is fading away and all is getting dark, or maybe years from now in some nursing home when you have forgotten everything else.
Even on that day; you will still have a prayer; this prayer: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”
Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.
–Stephen, Acts 7:59b