Today, on St. Stephan's day, we especially remember the holy martyrs who have given their lives in witnessing for the truth. St. Stephen is known as the first Christian martyr. The fate of these martyrs is a part of that history which reveals that the world hates God's Word and loves sin. At the same time it is history that should cause worldly?minded Christians to hang their heads in shame because they do not have the courage to confess their Savior's name. It reveals also our weakness and gives us courage to be Christ's witnesses.

The first man who had to pay for his faith by his death was Abel. Cain hated his brother because Abel's sacrifice pleased God, whereas his sacrifice did not. Cain's worship was the wrong kind without the true faith; Abel's was the right kind, for he believed that God is merciful. Today preachers of God's Word are hated by those people whose false worship the preachers condemn. And yet, faithful preachers must do this. Otherwise they are not Christ's witnesses.

During the reign of king Joash the people of Judah worshiped the Asherim and the idols. "So wrath came upon Judah and Jerusalem for this their guilt. Yet He sent prophets to them to bring them back to the Lord; though they testified against them, they would not listen" (2 Chron. 24:18,19). But still God wanted to warn them so that they would not be eternally lost. "Then the Spirit of God came on Zechariah the son of Jehoiada the priest; and he stood above the people and said to them: 'Thus God has said, why do you transgress the commandments of the Lord and do not prosper? Because you have forsaken the Lord, He has also forsaken you" (2 Chron. 24:20). Filled with God's Spirit, Zechariah proclaimed the right message. But they did not want to be admonished because of their sins, nor did they want to repent. "So they conspired against him and at the command of the king they stoned him to death in the court of the house of the Lord" (2 Chron. 24:21).

John the Baptist admonished Herod because he had taken his brother's wife for himself. For this he was imprisoned and later beheaded.

Stephen cried out: "Which one of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who had previously announced the coming of the Righteous One, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become" (Acts 7:52). He was stoned to death.

All these examples have something in common. Holy men fearlessly proclaimed sin to be sin and applied the Law of God to the conscience, whether the matter in question was one of false doctrine or of manifest sin.

The purpose of a sermon is to convict the hearer of sin and to prepare him for the Gospel. But the sermon does not permit the hearers to be content with a mere perfunctory repentance, mere words. The unconditional forsaking of sin is demanded. This creates anger. A person is ready to make a show of repenting, but not all actually repent. Repentance reveals itself to be genuine when the repentant sinner no longer does that which is wrong, nor uses what has been wrongly acquired to his advantage. The proclaimers of God's Word have not always only been persecuted by the unbelieving people of the world, but also at times by those who in a manner worship God, but at the same time remain in their sins without understanding God's grace.

No one is perfect, not even close to it, nor can escape being bruised by sin in this life. There has been no moment during our whole lifetime that we have been without our sinful nature. Everyone needs God's Law to remain convicted of sin. But the difference between a believer and an unbeliever is great.

A child of God heeds the admonition he receives, admits that the Law is just, and even rejoices that his wrongful behavior has been pointed out to be sin. And above all God's child, through the power of God's grace, rises from his fall.

The unbeliever, on the other hand, is angered by the preaching of the Law. He may be able to tolerate the Gospel as long as he does not have to repent of his sinful life. He may even use the Gospel as a cover for his evil deeds. But in reality he does not believe that his sins have been forgiven, but only seeks permission to remain in his sins. When he does not get it from the proclaimer of the Word, he is enraged, and this rage erupts in the form of persecution.

Another and still more important common feature of the holy martyrs is that they were not only preachers of the Law but were also preachers of the Gospel. They "announced the coming of the Righteous one" (Acts 7:52), as Stephen said of the prophets. They themselves lived by the Gospel and they preached it. They hoped and prayed that their enemies would be saved too. "Lord, do not hold this sin against them", was Stephen's last word (Acts 7:60).

On which side are you? Are you, as a repentant sinner but also as a pardoned believer, on the side of Jesus and His witnesses? If you are, then show that you are by your life. Support those who are being persecuted because they are witnessing for Christ. Or are you on the side of sin? If you are, you will receive the wages of sin ? death.

Jesus says: "He who loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me. And he who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. He who has found his life shall lose it, and he who has lost his life for My sake shall find it" (Matt. 10:37-39).

Jesus also says: "Continue to rejoice and be glad, for you have a great reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who lived before you" (Matt. 5:12).