Acts 6:8-8:1 – Stephen sees the Kingdom of God

Stephen was not an apostle but stands out as a foundational part of the Christian church. The first martyr, a “lay preacher” (!), full of faith, wisdom, power and the Holy Spirit. This man had a passion for the kingdom of God that was seen by all. He was a disciple for us to learn from. This week, we look at the contrast between this man of God and the people who wanted to kill him.

Context

Chapter 6 begins with an introduction to Stephen as one of seven men chosen by the early church to distribute food and money to those in need in the church. One stand out feature of these men was not their efficiency but their obvious faith and conversion. They were not just doing a favour for the apostles and the church – they were driven by their trust in God and being filled by the Holy Spirit – they were God-filled men.

Observation

6:8-15 – A man full of grace and his enemies full of deceit.

“full of God’s grace and power.” See 6:3, 5 – Stephen was known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom – also full of faith and the Holy Spirit. I think it is helpful to think of the word ‘full’ in terms of quality rather than quantity. It’s not a mathematical phrase because you can’t be 100% Spirit + 100% wisdom +100% grace + 100% power. Theses phrases give us the picture that Stephen was committed to God because of God’s grace and the Spirit. He was not a man half interested in the things of God – he was all in. He was clearly a man of God – marked by the things he did and the things that he believed.

It’s interesting to note that Stephen, like the apostles, performed wonders and signs. I find it helpful to remember that God can use anybody to show his glory and power – but they are always signs pointing to the gospel and to the Lord Jesus Christ – they are never to be used to show the greatness of man or the church. Signs and wonders are frequent during times of revival in the bible.

“They could not stand up against the wisdom the Spirit gave him as he spoke.” I won’t take up any space talking about who the Freedmen (so called) were but to note that these were not part of the Apostle’s movement but from the unbelieving Jews. They couldn’t win debates with Stephen so they resorted to lies. Why is it so hard for people to just admit that they are wrong? It seems to be at the depth of our human condition to fight for what we love and desire even when we can’t rationally argue clearly for it. Of course, the first thing that God requires of us is to admit and confess that we are wrong and that he is right. Stephen, in this section, stands for one who is on the side of truth and his opposition stand for lies and corruption.

“Blasphemous words against Moses and against God.” This is a peculiar charge. Why insert Moses into that statement? Isn’t it enough to accuse him of blasphemy against God? Surely, this accusation reveals how these people were embedded to religion rather than to a desire to know and serve God. They twisted Stephen’s words to be against their great Moses even while Peter has been accusing the people for several chapters now that they have blasphemed God by killing the Author of Life! Jesus trumps Moses but they are concerned for Moses! Religion has great power because it only asks people to change their outside and not their inside. Attend church and be good to others and that is all that is required of religion. But the Spirit of God seeks to dwell in us and change us from the inside – to put to death the misdeeds of the flesh – even deception and lies.

“we have heard him say that this Jesus…will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us.” See  the previous paragraph about clinging to religion. Also, notice, even though these are part of the lies against Stephen, their might be elements of truth in what Stephen and other were preaching. The early believers must have been discussing what the death and resurrection of Jesus means in practice for Jewish converts. What will the priests do now (6:7)? Even though the accusations are lies they may also be exaggerated descriptions of how the disciples were interpreting the scriptures now and seeing Jesus fulfil the law and the prophets.

“Saw his face was like the face of an angel.” It’s ironic that they were accusing Stephen of blaspheming Moses and yet God made Stephen’s face shine like the face of an angel – reminiscent of the face Moses had when he had been with God (Exodus 34:29-35).

7:1-53 – Stephen’s great sermon – biblical theology 101!

Here is the bulk of our passage this week. All I’m going to do here is break his sermon into sections with a heading and paraphrase what he is saying. It’s really important to see the big picture of what Stephen is doing here: he is giving his Jewish friends the big picture of the bible. If you have read or studied “God’s Big Picture” or some other biblical theology, then this sermon of Stephen’s will be a great reminder to you. Stephen’s sermon here is a perfect example of how to understand the whole bible – one book from one author on the one message of salvation through Christ!

7:1-8 – Abraham

God gave Abraham the promise of a land (Israel) and a great nation of descendants (through Isaac). God promised Abraham that the nation will be saved from a foreign land after 400 years and he made the covenant with the symbol of circumcision. The Jews began with God’s promises to Abraham. God called Abraham. God chose Abraham. God promised blessings on Abraham.

7:9-16 – Joseph

“God was with [Joseph].” God had promised Abraham that before his descendants received the promised land, they would first be slaves in a foreign land. The life of Joseph describes the events leading to that fulfilled this. Even though Joseph was hated by his brothers, yet God was with him. What men think about us is not important – it’s what God thinks that counts. Something that Stephen may have found comforting to reflect on as he is being accused.

7:17-38 – Moses

“Who made you ruler and judge?” This was the question asked of Moses by his own people. The answer is: God did! God raised up Moses from birth to be a saviour for the people – to rule them, judge over them and save them from slavery through the power and might of God. The people were slow to accept Moses in the beginning even though it was God who called him. God also promised that he ‘will raise up for you a prophet like me from your own people.” This will, of course, be Jesus. Do you see the theme that Stephen is using to retell the bible story? It is the rejection of the one that God calls.

7:39-43 Rejecting God in the wilderness

Stephen is so creative with his words! How briefly he is able to sum up the time between Moses and the exile into Babylon! Pray that our preachers will learn this craft (yes I include myself in this!). Even at the foot of Mt Sinai, the people of Israel were rejecting God and turning to the sun the moon and the stars as their focus of worship. The origin of the Jews is not beautiful. There sin resulted in the exile to Babylon in the 8th century BC.

7:44-50 The history of the Tabernacle

“The Most High does not live in houses made by human hands.” Stephen reminds the people how the tabernacle was made under the direction of God to Moses and later it was God who chose Solomon to construct a more permanent temple BUT neither are really the dwelling place for God. Stephen had shown how the people rejected Moses and now he shows how God has viewed the tabernacle and temple – not really sufficient to represent the glory of God – the maker of heaven and earth.

7:51-53 The Conclusion

“You always resist the Holy Spirit!” There is nothing new under the son, says the wise teacher. The Jews were treating Stephen no differently to any other messenger from God previously. Stephen’s sermon has gone to show that the desire of the people has always been to undermine and disobey God. Although Stephen’s face shone like an angel, they will reject and destroy him now and pretend that they are doing God’s will.

7:54-8:1 Stephen sees clearly

The end of this story mirrors the beginning: Stephen is seeing clearly while his enemy are hiding themselves from the truth. Stephen describes what he sees as he looks into heaven so that everyone around can hear the truth: the Son of Man is standing at the right hand of God. Stephen literally sees the kingdom of God and the Son of Man in the position of authority. This Son of Man is a phrase taken from Daniel 7 (look it up) and which Jesus often referred to himself as.

The persecutors cover their ears – they just don’t want to hear what Stephen is saying – they consider his words nothing but blasphemy. Their conclusion is to remove him from the living. Saul is introduced as an observer with authority – approving what is happening. Ironically, Saul will be converted to Christianity under similar circumstances – seeing Jesus in a vision!

This was the day when great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem. Peter and John had experienced some persecution including flogging but now marked the first day of persecution for the church. Stephen is often referred to as the first martyr of the Christian faith.

Notice the poetry of this:

  • Acts 1:8 “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria…
  • Acts 8:1 “all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.”

Meaning

The progress of God’s mission has always been marked with persecution and opposition. Humanity is, true to their sinful nature, bent on rejecting God and his messengers. Christian prosperity is possible but it is not the norm. Jesus said, “if the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first.” John 15:18

Application

  • The whole bible is one book from one author with one message of one salvation. Do you know your bible as well as Stephen did? Make a plan to get to know your bible better. There are many ways to do this and plenty of people to help you if you ask for help. “God’s Big Picture +” course is one step. Moore College Distance Learning is another. Make a plan to talk to someone about your bible education – it leads to the greatest purpose in life: knowing God.
  • Stephen was full of faith, full of grace, full of wisdom and full of the Holy Spirit and power. He didn’t flinch at persecution or an opportunity to open his mouth and speak the truth – both before and during opposition. Passion for God and his word comes from a growing knowledge and trust in it – see the previous application point.
  • Stephen saw heaven open up and the Son of Man standing at the right side of God. He saw the reality of heaven. Take a moment to meditate on heaven as a reality and not a fairy story – on there being a real presence of God and his kingdom – one that we don’t see clearly yet but that does not make it unreal! This reality can actually help us to pray – when we know that our prayers don’t just hit the ceiling and go nowhere but they speak to the living and loving ruler of heaven and earth.
  • Rejection of God’s messengers is not rare. Does this bother you? If Stephen was seeking his life first, he could have aborted his message and sermon at any moment. But his passion and drive came from his trust in God – full commitment to the kingdom of heaven.
  • Pray for a passion and love for God that Stephen displayed. He certainly was a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit. Could you be described like that? Why or why not? I’m pulling the plank out of my own eye here. Pray for one another about this too – pray that we will grow as a community of believers – seeking first God’s kingdom and passionate to know Him more and to introduce others to Him.
  • Pray also for the persecuted church around the world. Our prayer is not primarily for persecution to end but for the word of God to spread.
  • I wonder if we are driven by our fear of rejection or our desire to be part of this world. Stephen was driven by the greatness of God and the reality of His kingdom.

Prayer for the week

Lord Jesus, please find us worthy to be called your messengers. May we be known as people who sing and speak your praises. Help us to love you with all of our heart and mind and soul. Help us to be loving to our neighbour and make you known to them – whatever the cost. Amen.

Acts 6:1-7 Church logistics

Firstly, welcome back from the Easter break! Secondly, we’re skipping a section in our studies in order to stay in sync with the preaching roster. So, you’ll need to read the bulk of chapter 5 for context – I’ll mention one thing in particular later in this blog.

Context

The early church was formed as a result of the miraculous work of God and the message of the resurrected Messiah. The works brought attention to the disciples but it was the message – the word of God – which saved people and increased the number in the church – those who were being saved!

The Christian community loved one another and gave generously by bringing money to the feet of the disciples in order to be shared out to those in need.

As the community of believers grew, so did the persecution from the Sanhedrin.

Observation

The structure of these verses are not difficult to nail down:

  • 1-2 describe the scene and problem of the story.
  • 3-4 the solution is given.
  • 5-6 the solution is carried out
  • 7 the result was positive.

“In those days…” not a specific date or week but in the same time being spoken about and, more importantly, while the “number of disciples was increasing.” This account is set while the church as still on the increase. No plateau has been reached.

“Helenistic Jews…Hebraic Jews”. If it isn’t obvious, Luke is describing the one religious group but two ethnic backgrounds. The first were the Greeks and the latter were the Israelites. Interesting that firstly, Jews had been doing outreach ministry prior to Jesus’ great commission (Matthew 28:19-20) and secondly, that the early Christians were still described as Jews. Peter wasn’t trying to convert anyone away from Judaism, just trying to persuade Jews that Jesus is both Messiah and Lord!

“…complained against…because their widows were being overlooked…” It doesn’t take long to find divisions amongst people. It seems to be a natural phenomena that people clump together in like groups. Sure, there are exceptions, but that’s all that they are. The church, even at the beginning, shared this universal trait. The apostles, apparently, were favouring the Hebraic Jews also. I suppose it wasn’t intentional, just an oversight in their prejudice (blindly?). The issue here turns out not to be racial discrimination or prejudice but just logistics and numbers. The solution is not an apology and promise to work harder to do better, but to rearrange the way food was distributed.

“…not be right … to neglect the ministry of the word of God…give attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.” The apostles saw that solving this problem themselves without delegating would only take them away from what they believed was their core business. This says something about the balance between word-based ministry and charity work. It’s not a matter of which is more important but that both are needed – and if push comes to shove, the word ministry comes first.

“choose seven men…known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom.” There was a process of election and choosing but the priority was not good table manners but true spiritual life and wisdom. These would be men who others could see were actively promoting the work of the gospel themselves – who loved the truth – and also who showed pragmatic intelligence. They loved God, people and knew how to serve both correctly.

Recall the story of Moses when he listened to the advice of his father-in-law to appoint other godly men to judge the people’s problems with him (Exodus 18:13-27). It’s worth reading that account and hearing the similarity with the apostles’ situation.

“…they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also…and laid their hands on them.” Stephen is singled out mainly because of his major contribution to the account that follows from verse 8. Supposedly the other six men also had qualities like Stephen’s.  “Full of faith” reminds me no so much of the quantity of faith but of how obvious it was that these men trusted the Lord. The Holy Spirit is not someone that you observe physically in someone, but the actions of the person show the presence of the Spirit. Remember Jesus talking with Nicodemus and comparing the Spirit with wind – you don’t see him, but you see the effect he has on people.

“They laid their hands on them.” This is a practice continued to this day in many churches and in the Anglican system. I take this as a physical affirmation which marks a serious appointing. They were not simply hired men to complete a job but were being blessed to take on this important role in the community. All would know that these men were chosen and then approved by the apostles.

“So the word of God spread.” It spread because the apostles were released to focus and give their attention to this work. Also, the men chosen to handle the funds were centred on the same mission – they were not two missions but the same.

“The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly…” note that the word is still contained to Jerusalem and we look forward to it spreading out to Samaria and the ends of the world (Acts 1:8) BUT it is still growing in Jerusalem – not slowing down.

“…and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.” The significance of this statement, I think, is linked to the story which immediately preceded this one. The Sanherdrin were advised by a Pharisee named Gamaliel (Acts 5:34) to let the apostles continue to speak and don’t stop them. The logic was this: if what they speak is from men, then the message will just fizzle out naturally – it always does. But if it is from God then there will be nothing they can do to stop it! Here, many priests are turning to the faith too! They are really turning their backs on their livelihood by admitting that there is only one Priest now and that is Jesus (although, it’s hard to know when this fully dawned on the church – something to ponder). Gamaliel’s logic was playing out and the believers were growing, not diminishing! Since we stand here today declaring this same Jesus as Lord and Saviour, doesn’t it follow that, logically, this must be a message from God!?! Or was Gamaliel’s logic flawed?

Meaning

The ministry of the word is crucial to the church and it is also crucial for those who serve in other ways in the church. That is, all Christian service is to be linked to word ministry. No matter what we do, let’s pray for, speak of, serve toward the spreading of the good news.

Application

  • Beware of clumping in the church. It happens, don’t worry about it, but be aware of it and, most importantly, notice the type of people you are drawn toward and those you steer away from. Can you do anything to change this about yourself?
  • Giving attention to prayer and the ministry of the word of God. These two activities are so important. What attitudes, behaviours and habits do you repeat which take your attention away from prayer? What place does bible reading and sharing your knowledge of the bible have in your life? It’s an old and repeatable application, I know, but think about your attention to prayer and learning/teaching the word of God in your life. Is there something to pray about here?
  • Ministry in the church must include growing in godliness. Having people sign up for service in the church without advising, prompting or even expecting them to be showing clear signs of growing in godliness and faith, this tends to breed a community of workers who are not growing in Christ.
  • There is no distinction here between those who do “up front” ministries and those who do “behind the scenes” ministries. That is, both groups are centred on serving through the Holy Spirit, trusting completely in God for everything and looking outward toward the rebirth, maturity and discipling of others.
  • What things have you seen need doing in our church community? Have you wondered who is responsible for getting those things done? (cleaning things, taking out rubbish, putting things away, changing light-bulbs, creating rosters, gardening, following up absent people, welcoming, improving signage or screens…) What do we pay the full-time ministry team to do? Could you list what they do if you thought about it?

Prayer for the week

Father, Son and Holy Spirit, please give us a true sense of community as we work together to know you, trust you and live for you. Help us to devote ourselves to prayer, the word of God, faithfulness, godliness and serving one another in love. We pray this for the glory of your Son and for the spread of the gospel. Amen.