Heaven is open. Is it difficult to believe? It is an absolute truth that heaven is open. Bible testifies; ‘Its gates will never be shut by day- and there will be no night there (Rev.21:25). So it is ‘trustworthy and true’ that heaven is open. But are we able to see it? We are resigned to think that a vision of heaven is beyond the capabilities of this mortal body. It is true, but what drives us is not flesh, but spirit. Spirit can reach the higher realms where flesh cannot enter. ‘It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless’ ( John 6:63). Do you think that with this useless flesh the majesties of heaven could be seen? Never.
But there are men and women who saw the heaven even while on earth. Today we will direct our thoughts to one such person. Think of St Stephen, the first martyr. He was a person filled with Spirit. ‘But they could not withstand the wisdom and spirit with which he spoke’ (Acts 6:10). Such was the anointment Stephen gained. ‘And all who sat in the council looked intently at him and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel’ (Acts 6:15). It was impossible for them to agree with what was revealed by the Holy Spirit through Stephen. Scripture admonishes them in the harshest of words: “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do” (Acts 7:51). A person who is opposing the Holy Spirit can never have a true god-experience. In the end we see the Jews stoning Stephen to death. Martyrdom is not an easy thing, nor is it granted at our will. It is a grace and gift from God.
Those who live under persecution and looking forward to the day of their martyrdom should read the whole of chapter 7 of the Acts, especially the last few verses. It will give them strength and hope to withstand till the very end. Those who tremble at the thought of having to suffer for the sake of Jesus Christ should also read it, so that they will be strengthened in their faith. Those who think sacrificing one’s life for upholding the true faith is nonsense should certainly read it. They will realise what faith means, and how faith is witnessed in martyrdom and how martyrs are crowned in heaven. ‘Stephanos’ literally means a crown or a mark of royal or exalted rank.
We cannot read about the final moments of Stephen without amazement. It tells us how much God values martyrdom on earth. Let us read it once:
“When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died’. ( Acts 7:54-60).
It was during this final trial surrounded by enemies on all sides and while going through the most excruciating pain of being stoned to death, that Stephen raised his eyes upwards to gaze into heaven. At that moment he saw the heaven open. He could see the glory of God, the majesty of heaven and his Lord and Saviour standing next to the Father. He gave his final testimony to what he saw there. This glimpse of heaven was sufficient reason for Stephen to utter his final words. Like his Master who prayed for those who crucified him, Stephen also commend his soul to the Lord with a prayer to forgive his persecutors.
Heaven is still open. Do we see it? If we cannot raise our eyes and look at the heaven we will instead look around to see only our enemies.
Let us pray to God for opening our eyes to see those who protect us in times of tribulation. What Elisha’s servant could see was only the fast approaching army of the enemies with horses and chariots around the city. But what Elisha saw was a mountain full of horses and chariots of fire all around him to protect him from the enemies. Elisha, the prophet filled with God’s Spirit prays for his servant, an ordinary mortal; ‘O Lord, please open his eyes that he may see” (2 Kings 6:17). Then only the servant could see the grand spectacle of heavenly armies standing alert to protect the servant of the Lord.
A martyr’s story is same everywhere. If all the martyrs gazed into heaven at the moment of their persecution and death, we should be no different. If they prayed for their enemies, even while undergoing unimaginable tortures, we should be no different. Stephen should be the role model of every Christian, because every Christian is called to become a martyr for Christ.
Let us pray.
St. Stephen, you were full of zeal for the glory of God; pray that the Holy Spirit may continue to renew us in our mission to help save souls. St. Stephen, you now live with Jesus forever in heaven. Pray that we may be granted the grace of final perseverance. Amen.