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.
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.
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.”
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
- 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.