Stephen was selected to be one of the seven men responsible for the business of the early church in order to free the Apostles for accomplishing the priority of preaching, teaching, and praying. Introduced to us in Acts 6:5, Stephen then becomes the main subject for the remainder of the sixth chapter and the entire seventh chapter. He is a very important individual, and even though we think of Stephen as a martyr and know very little else about him, the wealth of information that is here in this passage opens up to us an in-depth perception of this man's character. He has to be one of the greatest men who ever lived, having been on a par with Moses. Even from the standpoint of Stephen being a Christian this would have been so, according to Matthew 11:11. Jesus made the statement that John the Baptist was the greatest man who ever lived--even greater than Moses, Abraham, Elijah, Elisha, David, or Solomon. And yet, surprisingly enough, Jesus also said in the same verse, ". . . notwithstanding, he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.'' There's a sense in which all believers are greater than any of those in the Old Testament, for we have a relationship to Jesus Christ which commits unto us His greatness, which becomes ours through faith. And so, there is a real sense in which all of us within the Kingdom reach a place of union with God that the Old Testament saints, even the best of them, never experienced in life. It is in this sense that Stephen is greater. But even in the sense of just looking at it from a strategic point in the plan of God, Stephen ranks with Moses.
The Historical Importance of Stephen
Now, the testimony given to Israel in the initial chapters of the book of Acts is basically on the shoulders of Peter, who was commissioned as the Apostle to the circumcision, that is, the Jews. As his testimony is coming to an end in Acts, the testimony of the Apostle Paul to the Gentiles is beginning to open up. And right in between the two, as a bridge in the middle, is Stephen: Peter ministered primarily to the Jerusalem Jews (Ac. 2-5; Gal. 2:7b), Paul ministered to the Gentiles (Ac. 13:46; Gal. 2:7a), and Stephen's transitional ministry was to the Hellenist Jews.
Stephen is also a bridge between Peter and Paul, because Peter's ministry dominated Jerusalem, Paul's ministry went to the world, and Stephen indirectly served as the catalyst that sent the church from Jerusalem into the world. When he was martyred, persecution broke out which scattered the church, resulting in the evangelization of "all Judea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth'' (Ac. 1:8b). As a consequence of the death of Stephen, the church was thrown out of Jerusalem, its first mission field (Ac. 1:8a). This is exactly what God wanted to happen anyway, because Jerusalem had been fully evangelized at that point. Even Jerusalem's leaders admitted, ". . . ye have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine . . .'' (Ac. 5:28b). The church had accomplished its task and it was time to move on. I believe they had reached those that God had chosen in that city, because at this time, the people who had been favorable to the church (Ac. 2:47a) all of a sudden turned hostile and killed Stephen. God had redeemed the elect of Jerusalem, and those who were now remaining in Jerusalem were the ones hostile toward Christ.
In a very real sense, Stephen was a forerunner of Paul. Stephen busied himself communicating the gospel to foreign Jews by going to their synagogues, as Acts 6:9 indicates. In Jerusalem, the foreign Jews maintained their own synagogues, so that when they came to Jerusalem for feasts and pilgrimages, they would have a place to meet. Stephen went to those synagogues, which set the pattern for Paul's initial ministry: When Paul went into a city, he would find the synagogue of the Jews and would reason with them there from the Scriptures. In this way, Stephen's ministry was preliminary to that of the Apostle Paul's. Like Paul, Stephen confronted congregations of Jews, countering the opposition of Jewish bigotry. He was also treated with violence, insulted, and stoned. So, in a very real sense, the mantle of Stephen fell on Saul of Tarsus, another Hellenist Jew, who became one of Stephen's bitterest opponents. In fact, it just may be that Saul owes his earliest exposure to the gospel to Stephen, because Saul definitely was a part of the group that was persecuting Stephen.
Now, apart from Stephen being strategically important historically, he was important because of his individual life.
The Personal Importance of Stephen
Besides moving history, men also move the hearts of others by their individuality. Stephen was not only important because he had great historical effect (his martyrdom causing the expansion of the church), he was also important just because of the very character of his life. He is great proof that the effect of a man's life or ministry has nothing to do with the length of it. His ministry was so short, and yet it was the catalyst that caused the church to move out in the next step in its commission and reach Judea and Samaria with the gospel. Stephen was the trigger that shot the church into the world. And I don't think that anybody can fully estimate the results of even a brief work of one man, when that one man has the courage to do and say what he knows is right whatever the consequences. Such was Stephen's style. He took no thought for himself, doing what he knew was right and letting the chips fall as they may. When he was killed, it was a sad loss for the church (Ac. 8:2), and yet he didn't die one day sooner than when he had accomplished all that God had wanted him to accomplish. However, he will have died in vain, in terms of your life, unless you learn what it is that God wants to teach you through him. Don't let him die in vain in your case.
Now, Stephen was the first Christian martyr. Before his death, the opposition of the Jews had been limited to threats of imprisonment, verbal abuse, and finally to imprisonment and beating. Then, beginning with the stoning of Stephen, the Jewish opposition burst forth with a roaring fury. They reached a point of fury that could only be satisfied with blood, and consequently instigated the first in the series of persecutions that have plagued the church throughout its history. Stephen was the first in an endless list of people who have died for their faith in Jesus Christ. God knew it was time for the church to move, and Stephen was going to be the key. I am reminded about William Carey, who labored in the mission field nearly thirty-five years without ever seeing a single soul come to Christ. And yet since his time, all the missions of India have been based upon the work that he did in terms of translation. In this sense, he has a part in all that God has done since his death. This was Stephen--a man who lived and died without ever seeing one single convert as a result of his ministry.
You say, "The poor guy! If he would have stuck around without being so blatant with those Jews, he might have been around long enough to lead somebody to the Lord and get a few stars in his crown.'' I'm sure that there are all kinds of stars from Judea and Samaria that are going to stud the crown of Stephen. As 1 Corinthians 3:6 teaches, some plant and some water, but God gives the increase. Stephen never saw anybody come to Christ; at least, none are recorded in the text, but that's no excuse for you to say, "I've never seen anybody come to Christ as a result of my ministry either, so I might as well leave the planting and pick up on somebody else's stars.'' There's no reason to do that. If you can come to the commitment that Stephen had, and operate like he did--even without seeing anybody come to Christ--you'll be rewarded. But as far as we know, Stephen saw nothing happen in response to his preaching, except his own persecution. Consequently, there are always people who say, "Well, Stephen got a little bit too involved and overly blatant when he accused his opponents of having killed Christ. If he had been smart, he would have just quieted down. Think of all the people he could have discipled.'' But Stephen did what was right--he took no thought for the consequences, because he believed they were in the hands of God.
Stephen was great, and chapter 6 records four features of his greatness: His Choosing, His Character, His Courage, and His Countenance. First, let's examine . . .
I. HIS CHOOSING (vv. 3-5)
When a complaint had arisen in the early church over the apparent inequitable distribution of food and money among the poor of the church, the Apostles set about to resolve it: "Wherefore, brethren, look among you for seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business. But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word. And the saying pleased the whole multitude; and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolas, a proselyte of Antioch.''
By this time, there were probably somewhere between twenty and thirty thousand Christians in the Jerusalem church, and out of them were to be chosen seven men full of the Holy Spirit. Did you notice that the first name of those listed was Stephen's? That should give you a little idea about what kind of a man he was. The spiritual maturity of the man goes without saying, because it is implied by the fact that the church chose him. Because he was chosen from among thousands, along with those others who also were "of honest report, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom'' (v. 3), the high esteem that the church had for him is clearly revealed. In fact, for a man to be approved by those who know him best is the epitome of approval. His name is Stephenos, which means "victor's crown,'' and certainly his reputation had earned him that.
The pure early church filled with the Spirit would be so careful in choosing, they would select only men of the highest quality and thus, the unique spiritual greatness of Stephen is established for all time. He was approved by the church for the highest office it could appoint. Only the Apostles were higher in authority, because they had been appointed by Jesus Christ Himself.
Choosing Leaders in the Church
The selection of those to lead in the church is of vital importance. The highest spiritual character is demanded of them. When you choose from among you elders and deacons, choose wisely and prayerfully. And those of you who serve as elders and deacons, make sure that you understand the tremendous spiritual responsibility that belongs to you. When you come to the writings of the Apostle Paul to Timothy and Titus, in which he lists the qualifications of deacons and elders, you find that he doesn't lower the standards from Acts 6. If anything, he makes the qualifications stiffer, because in Acts there are no qualifications about marriage, family, relationships to the outside world, attitudes, drinking, and other such things. But Paul lays down additional qualifications to help insure that the leadership in the church would be held by men of the highest kind of spiritual stature.
So the very choosing of Stephen initially indicates to us something of the kind of man he must have been. And the choice was validated by . . .
II. HIS CHARACTER (vv. 5, 8)
Everything about him indicates that they chose well. Let's look at his character, which should be the standard for every Christian.
A. The Statement of Identity (v. 5)
". . . Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit . . .''
1. " . . . full of faith . . .''
First, we need to talk about the word "full'' so that we understand what it means. The Greek word pleres comes from the verb pleroo, which means "to fill up.'' The concept of filling with regard to a person's response has to do with domination or control. Therefore, when it says Stephen was "full of faith,'' it means that the thing which totally controlled him was faith. The Bible also talks about people who are full of rage, full of sorrow, full of joy, full of fear, full of madness, full of anger, and so on. In effect, the people having such responses were being controlled by the emotions they expressed.
In life there is peacefulness or a calmness on one end of the scale, and on the other there is wrath, anger, and violence. Most of us find an equilibrium: We get irritated and yet we have our moments of calm. Some of us are heavy on the calm. Some of us are heavy on the irritation. But to be full of either one means to be totally dominated. So when a man is totally dominated by rage, the scale tips all the way to one side--he's lost control of his ability to get equilibrium. When we say a man is full of sorrow, we mean that he no longer can balance off his sorrow with his happiness, he is totally controlled by sorrow. The idea of filling in this sense is that of control.
a. The Control of His Faith
Now there is, in the balance of every man, a scale. On one end is believing God--faith--and on the other end is doubt. Most of us tend to go back and forth. But Stephen was full of faith--there wasn't any doubt around. His scale was fully tipped in the direction of faith. He wasn't like the man who said, "Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief'' (Mk. 9:24b). Stephen was full of faith. It was trust that dominated his life. He believed God and was dominated by that. There wasn't any mixture of doubt with it. He just believed God. You say, "Well, what specifically did he believe in?'' If you study the sermon in Acts 7, you discover . . .
b. The Content of His Faith
1) He believed that God ruled history (vv. 1-51).
The whole seventh chapter is his great sermon on how God rules history. He could say, "Because I'm a part of history, God rules me--He determines destiny. Therefore, I have no need to worry because God's in control.'' And like the Apostle Paul, Stephen could say, "For whether we live, we live unto the Lord; and whether we die, we die unto the Lord; whether we live, therefore, or die, we are the Lord's'' (Rom. 14:8). It doesn't matter.
Now there are many Christians who have faith, but they are not full of faith. They have faith mixed with doubt in varying percentages: 60-40%, 70-30%, 80-20%. But Stephen was 100% faith. Furthermore, he not only believed God was controlling history, but . . .
2) He believed that Jesus was the Messiah (v. 52).
He totally believed that Jesus was the fulfillment of all Messianic prophecy.
3) He believed Jesus was risen and exalted to the right hand of the Father (vv. 55-56).
4) He believed Jesus cared for him (v. 59).
5) He believed in the Holy Spirit (v. 51).
Stephen rested in his belief. It never bothered him that he was going to get into trouble, because he wasn't trying to protect anything, he knew God was in control. Have you ever tried to run your own life? You say, "I can't give God control of my life, because I must keep my life in this little box that I've got for it.'' Stephen knew that the only person controlling his life was God . . . so he did whatever God told him to do and didn't worry about it. But you say, "If I do that, I'll lose my job!'' Well, you say that because you don't believe God's running your life. You think you need to help it. Stephen didn't think that. He said, "God is in control--He runs the show. I believe that, so I do what He tells me.''
Now, faith has varying levels. I think all of us believe God. If somebody says to you, "Do you have faith in God?'' you would say yes. But there are different levels of faith. I think many of us have given our souls to God, we just haven't yet given our bodies to God. We don't worry too much about our eternal destiny, but we sure worry about our headaches and our stomachaches, and whether we get enough food. We do pretty well giving our souls to God, but we kind of hang on to our bodies. And some of us haven't been able to give God our emotions. We can't trust God with certain things in life, so we get emotionally uptight, and we worry and fret. Some might have the motto: "Why pray when you can worry?'' In other words, "Why give it to God when you can get ulcers over it yourself?''
Stephen bet his eternal destiny on God and didn't worry about it. What a classic illustration of one who was full of faith! He just figured if there was going to be pain and death, and that's what God wanted, then he would do it. He bet his life on God.
Second, Stephen was full . . .
2. ". . . of the Holy Spirit . . .''
Stephen was not only totally dominated by faith, but he was totally dominated by the Spirit of God as well, which simply meant that he trusted and he obeyed. Being full of faith is to trust, and being full of the Spirit is to obey His control. These are the two greatest words in the Christian life--trust and obey--and Stephen had them both: He believed God and he did what the Spirit told him to do. His life was full of the Holy Spirit.
What does it mean to be filled with the Holy Spirit? It means to be under the control of the Holy Spirit. Paul says to every Christian, ". . . be filled with the Spirit'' (Eph. 5:18b). In that early church, the Bible says "they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and they spoke the word of God with boldness'' (Ac. 4:31b). You don't get filled with the Holy Spirit and say,"I'm filled with the Spirit . . . now what am I going to do?'' No--if you're filled with the Spirit, you're just doing it. Consider the illustration of the hand in a glove: When you put a hand in a glove, the glove doesn't say, "Oh hand, show me the way to go.'' The glove just goes, because the hand is in it. The Christian is a glove. If you're filled with the Spirit, you don't need to ask anything--you just need to do whatever the energy of the Spirit does in you.
So, Stephen was full of faith and full of the Spirit. Let's compare the qualities of Stephen mentioned in verse 5 with those in verse 8.
B. The Statement of Effect (v. 8)
1. " . . . full of grace . . . ''
Though some Bibles say "faith,'' the best reading is "grace.'' Rather than being repetitious of verse 5, verse 8 tells us that Stephen was "full of grace.'' In fact, the grace was a result of his faith. He was full of faith and the Spirit; therefore, he was full of grace and power. To be full of grace (Gk. charis) means that God's favor is bestowed as a result of being full of faith. Now there are several kinds of grace, but all grace comes as a result of faith. For example, there is . . .
a. The Grace of Salvation
"For by grace are ye saved through faith . . .'' (Eph. 2:8a). Grace comes from faith.
b. The Grace of Suffering
Peter says that if we are willing to suffer for the sake of Christ, God will provide the necessary grace (1 Pet. 5:10). If you'll believe God to the point where you'd die for Him as you confront the world, God will give you dying grace. I believe that when a martyr comes to the place where he dies for his faith in Jesus Christ, God dispenses to him divine dying grace.
And so, there's grace that comes in salvation, and that which comes in persecution, but there is also . . .
c. The Grace of Lovingkindness
Lovingkindness toward others also comes by faith. This may even be the primary kind of grace that's in view here. Stephen was full of the grace of lovingkindness toward others. That may be part of the reason they chose him to be one responsible for helping the widows. But more than that, look at his grace in Acts 7:60: In the midst of being stoned, Stephen looked up to heaven "and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.'' That was nothing short of graciousness, wasn't it? That is lovingkindness to the extreme when one bestows favor upon those who are trying to kill him.
You say, "How in the world could he do that? If those guys were doing that to me, I'd be screaming all kinds of invectives at them! How could he be so forgiving?'' Because he believed God was in control of even that, and therefore he wasn't busy trying to protect himself. He was only too eager to die, if God so wanted. Consequently, his ultimate response was a gracious kind of lovingkindness. The only way a man can ever really graciously love everybody else is when he's not trying to protect himself. When a man really believes God, he is then able to extend grace toward everybody else, because he understands that others are only contributing to the plan of God in his life. But if you're going to run around trying to salvage yourself in your little box that you've built for yourself, then you're going to get irritated when somebody puts a dent in it. But because Stephen wasn't trying to protect himself, he could say, "Don't blame them, Lord.'' That kind of grace came from his faith, which said, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit'' (Ac. 7:59b). He knew by faith that heaven awaited him. Every time you find grace, you always find it coming as a response to faith. Whoever believes God, to him God dispenses grace. So, being full of faith, he was full of grace.
Similarly, because he was full of the Holy Spirit, he was also full . . .
2. ". . . of power . . .''
If you are full of the Holy Spirit, you are full of power. So the statement of identity in verse 5 becomes the foundation for the statement of effect in verse 8: He was full of faith; therefore, he was gracious. He was full of the Spirit; therefore, he was powerful. His power is seen in that very verse in the fact he "did great wonders and miracles among the people'' (v. 8). The reality of the power that comes from being filled with the Spirit of God was stated by Jesus Himself: "But ye shall receive power, after the Holy Spirit is come upon you . . .'' (Ac. 1:8a).
Trust and obey equals grace and power. It's a simple spiritual principle outlined for us right here. When a man is full of faith toward God and obedient toward the Spirit, he will then be gracious toward men and express the power of God in their behalf. Conversely, you can never express grace toward men and experience true power, until you know full faith and are filled with the Spirit. It's a simple spiritual principle that is very practical.
So the power and the grace of God were exhibited in Stephen's life because he believed God and obeyed the Spirit. Having seen that he had the highest possible qualifications for a Christian's character, let's now examine . . .
III. HIS COURAGE (vv. 9-14)
There are few things as wonderful as courage. Though it is a missing quality in many people, this was not the case with Stephen. He went right into the hostile world, so full of faith and so full of the Holy Spirit, with the accompanying grace and power, that he smashed into the whole system with a dynamic impact. Two key words in this section are found in verse 13: "This man ceaseth not . . . .'' There was no stopping that guy. He wouldn't shut up. He was just like so many of those other early Christians. Oh, it's so easy for us to chicken out at the first sign of resistance. But not Stephen. Let's take a look at the circumstances that surrounded his courage.
A. The Synagogues of Opposition (v. 9)
"Then there arose certain of the synagogue, which is called the synagogue of the Libertines, and Cyrenians, and Alexandrians, and of them of Cilicia and of Asia, disputing with Stephen.''
1. The Purpose of the Synagogues
These foreign Jews pooled all their brains together into a fair debate against Stephen. Notice that they really had to gang up on him by involving the Libertines, the Cyrenians, the Alexandrians, the Cilicians, and the Asians. That says something about Stephen's ability. His opponents were members of synagogues (Gk. sunagoges = "a gathering together''). The synagogues were places where Jewish communities assembled to read the Scripture and worship, that began during the Babylonian captivity, when the Jews were scattered apart from the Temple.
2. The Plurality of the Synagogues
When the Jews returned to Palestine and rebuilt the Temple, they maintained their use of synagogues so that by the time of Christ, some believe that there were as many as 480 of them in Jerusalem alone. Some of these synagogues were foreign-speaking synagogues. They were maintained in the city of Jerusalem for the foreign Jews who came in at the feast seasons and for pilgrimages. So it was not unusual for there to be synagogues for such groups as the Libertines, Cyrenians, Alexandrians, Cilicians, and Asians. Their synagogues would be maintained by certain of their people who would remain in Jerusalem to keep it functioning. Then, when the foreign Jews arrived in Jerusalem, they would go to the appropriate synagogue that spoke their language.
Now some scholars tell us that there are five different synagogues indicated here, others holding to four, three, or two, and some to just one. I believe that the Libertines probably had one, the Cyrenians and Alexandrians probably had one together, because they were both from Africa, and the Cilicians and Asians probably had one together as well because they were both from Asia Minor, so I lean toward the view that there were probably three synagogues represented here. But all these people came into one meeting to argue with Stephen. Apparently, he hit all of them at one time or another, and they got together to have a debate about what he was saying.
3. The People of the Synagogues
a. The Libertines
The word "Libertines'' refers to a community of Jews known as freedmen. In 63 B.C., Pompey had gone into Israel and taken slaves from the Jews and hauled them off to Rome. After a certain number of years, they were released and they moved out of Rome to establish a community of these freed slaves.
b. The Cyrenians and the Alexandrians
These two groups were from African cities in the provinces of Libya and Egypt respectively. Alexandria, the capitol of Egypt that was named after Alexander the Great, had a large Jewish colony. In fact, very scholarly Jews lived in Alexandria and did much work on the Old Testament.
c. The Cilicians and the Asians
Cilicia and Asia were two districts in Asia Minor, the area north of Israel occupying what is now Turkey. A major city in Asia, a province west of Cilicia, was Ephesus, and the principal city of Cilicia was Tarsus, the town from which the Apostle Paul came.
There is a good chance that Saul was one of the many arguing with Stephen. Though he was probably one of the sharpest among the foreign Jews, having studied at the feet of Gamaliel, Saul was no match for the sanctified mind of Stephen. I would like to have heard a debate between an unregenerate Saul and a regenerate Stephen. Wouldn't that have been a thriller?! We know that Saul was around because in Acts 7:58 it says that those who stoned Stephen "laid down their clothes at a young man's feet, whose name was Saul.'' And then in 8:1, it says, "And Saul was consenting unto his [Stephen's] death . . . .'' So, he must have been involved in this whole thing.
Having identified the opponents of Stephen, let us consider . . .
B. The Superiority of the Proclamation (v. 10)
"And they were not able to resist the wisdom and the Spirit [or, spirit] by which he spoke.''
The Jews from these synagogues couldn't handle Stephen. He evidently won the debate, because when someone loses on a critical issue in a debate, the next tactic is usually slander. You see it in politics all the time: If you don't have an argument, you just defame the guy's character. Stephen's opponents probably figured, "We couldn't beat him in a fair debate, so let's get him by slander.''
They couldn't handle his wisdom or his spirit, which I believe is a reference to his powerful demeanor and his zealous personality. Stephen had two things that every good speaker needs: content and delivery. They couldn't handle either. People say to me, "What do you think are the two most important things in preaching?'' I always say, "Knowledge, and enthusiasm in the preaching itself. You must say something of importance, and you must say it so that the people get excited about it.'' And in this case, they couldn't handle Stephen's knowledge and enthusiasm. All their minds put together were no match for one Spirit-controlled mind.
C. The Subornation of Accusations (v. 11)
1. The Acquisition of the Witnesses
The word "suborned'' means that they hired false witnesses, who committed perjury. They were paid to say that they had heard Stephen speak blasphemous words against Moses and God. And by putting the objects of blasphemy in that order, we see the implication of how highly they valued the law. You say, "That's terrible!'' Well, that's nothing new. Remember Jesus at His trial? False witnesses were hired there, too, who accused Jesus of blasphemy as well.
2. The Accusations of the Witnesses
a. Blaspheming Moses
Blasphemy means "to speak evil of something that God deems sacred.'' The Jews figured that God had said Moses was sacred, so if anybody blasted Moses, he was blaspheming. Holding Moses in great esteem, they claimed that Stephen had spoken evil of him. (Later on, they claimed the same thing about Paul.) Such a sin was really walking on holy ground. I think Stephen was obviously misunderstood in his debate. He had probably said something which banged right into the legalism of Israel like, "The law of Moses can't save you,'' or, "The Old Covenant is passed by and there's a new one here in Christ.'' To their ears, that sounded like blasphemy. Now I don't think he did it in a blasphemous way, or it wouldn't say in the text that they set up false witnesses. They wouldn't have been considered false if they had truly reported what Stephen had said. Stephen had told them, no doubt, that Moses was to be superceded by the greater Prophet, Christ, but I don't think that he had done it in a blasphemous way.
The Jews were so overly zealous for the law, that what Stephen was proclaiming to them was like a match to a stick of dynamite. But again, that's his courage. After all, he could have gone in there and emasculated the gospel so that it didn't offend anybody, but that isn't the way he did it. He said what needed to be said with no thought of what it would cost him personally.
Second, they accused Stephen of . . .
b. Blaspheming God
I imagine he was presenting the deity of Christ, because we see the same type of reaction in John 10:36: The Jews had accused Jesus of blaspheming, because He had said, "I am the Son of God.'' But in direct contrast to the accusations of blaspheming Moses and God, Stephen had, in reality, committed neither of them. However, it was effective slander that resulted in . . .
D. The Stirring of Agitation (v. 12)
"And they stirred up the people, and the elders, and the scribes, and came upon him, and caught him, and brought him to the council''
This was a first with regard to the people. The elders and the scribes of the Sanhedrin had been stirred up for a long time, but the people had not, until this point. I think such agitation was possible because most of the elect had already been taken out of Jerusalem, and what was left were those hostile to Christ. These were the same people that a few chapters before were really in favor of the church, but here they were turned against it and caught Stephen. The word "caught'' implies that there was much violence (cf. Lk. 8:29; Ac. 27:15). Evidently they caught Stephen and dragged him away. Isn't it interesting how the people had changed? It was only a little while before when the leaders were careful not to persecute the Apostles, because the people might stone the leaders, and now the people became violent with Stephen. Isn't it amazing to see such a fine line between a willing hearing of the gospel and a violent hatred of it? A man can at one point be a willing listener, and then reject what he has heard and hate it violently.
After they had brought him to the council, they set up false witnesses for . . .
E. The Slander of Insurrection (vv. 13-14)
"And set up false witnesses, who said, This man ceaseth not to speak blasphemous words against this holy place, and the law; for we have heard him say, that this Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy this place, and shall change the customs which Moses delivered us.''
You say, "How was that false witness? It's essentially true.'' You're right. It was primarily false because of the slant they gave to it, for at no point had Stephen really blasphemed God at all. In fact, the term "false witnesses'' implies that Stephen had presented this in a very positive way. The Jews could have come to the council and said, "Stephen is claiming that the hope of Moses has come--the Prophet which Moses had predicted is here. Stephen is claiming that all of that satisfaction which needed to be repeated in the Old Covenant was finally accomplished in the death of Christ. He is saying that the Messiah has come and therefore the Old Covenant has now led into the New Covenant which our prophet, Jeremiah, predicted. According to him, the access to God which the old system couldn't bring, Christ can, by being the fulfillment of the law and the realization of our hopes and dreams.'' I really believe that was what Stephen had been saying, but they perverted it and accused Stephen of blasphemy. Viewing his message negatively, the witnesses claimed that Stephen was out to destroy Judaism. They said nothing of the positive he had proclaimed. Rather, they twisted Stephen's position to sound like insurrection and revolution.
One truthful element that came through the false testimony was that Stephen never stopped. He knew the conflict that this message might create, and yet he preached it and never flinched. What courage! Finally, at the end of his defense, Stephen confronted the real issue head on and accused the council of being the betrayers and the murders of the Just One (7:51-52). That was the end--the rocks came. Though they extinguished his life, they could not extinguish the courage he had exhibited.
Besides seeing greatness in Stephen's choosing, his character, and his courage, we also find it in . . .
IV. HIS COUNTENANCE (v. 15)
"And all that sat in the council, looking steadfastly on him, saw his face as it had been the face of an angel.''
A. The Appearance of His Countenance
That is one of the greatest rebukes I've ever read. In the midst of calling Stephen an evil blasphemer, Stephen sat there with a holy expression on his face. Can you imagine the rebuke? They saw what resembled the face of a holy angel of God, manifesting the glow of God that would be bestowed from being in the presence of God. I believe Stephen manifested the glory of God on his face. Peter talked about how the one who suffers persecution receives God's grace and glory (1 Pet. 4:14). To counter the false accusations, God had put His glory on Stephen's face. Only one other man in the history of the world ever had the glory of God on his face, and that was Moses. I said at the very beginning that I think Stephen ranks with Moses, and this is why. I believe God was rebuking them by saying, in effect, that only one other man ever looked like Stephen . . . and it was their own beloved Moses.
B. The Approval of the Covenant
God had made Moses reflect His glory to show His approval of the covenant He had given Moses. Likewise, Stephen manifested a similar appearance to show God's approval of the New Covenant. In effect, God was saying, "Both of those covenants were Mine.'' In Exodus 33 and 34 you can read the story yourself of the glory of God on the face of Moses, who came down from the mountain with the glory shining on his face and the basis for the Old Covenant in his arms. And when Stephen had proclaimed the New Covenant, God put the radiance of His glory on Stephen's face as well. The approval of Stephen in the same manner as Moses symbolized the fulfillment of the Old Covenant in the New.
Second Corinthians 3 speaks of the superior glory of the New Covenant: "But if the ministration of death [the Old Covenant under Moses], written and engraved in stones, was glorious, so that the children of Israel could not steadfastly behold the face of Moses for the glory of his countenance, which glory was to be done away, how shall not the ministration of the Spirit be more glorious? For if the ministration of condemnation be glory, much more doth the ministration of righteousness exceed in glory. . . . For if that which is done away was glorious, much more that which remaineth is glorious'' (vv. 7-9, 11). What was God doing putting His glory on the face of Stephen? He was approving the New Covenant in the face of Israel. What a rebuke God made through his servant, Stephen, who was great because of his choosing, his character, his courage, and his countenance!
Focusing on the Facts
1. Why was Stephen chosen as one of seven men to care for the business of the early church?
2. What allows Christians to be considered greater than the Old Testament saints?
3. Between what two New Testament personalities did Stephen serve as a bridge? Why?
4. In what ways were the ministries of Stephen and Paul similar?
5. What is ironic about the length of Stephen's ministry in relation to the results of it?
6. How does the selection of Stephen give evidence of his unique spiritual maturity?
7. Explain what it means when Stephen is said to be "full of faith'' (Ac. 6:5).
8. What did Stephen believe regarding God's relationship to history?
9. What does it mean to be filled with the Holy Spirit?
10. What does Acts 6:8 list as an aspect of Stephen's character which seems to be the result of his faith?
11. When is the only time a man can ever graciously love everybody?
12. What was the manifestation of Stephen's power, and of what was it the result?
13. What are synagogues, and how did they get their start?
14. What evidence is there that Saul of Tarsus could have been involved in the debate against Stephen?
15. What were the Jews not able to resist, with regard to Stephen (Ac. 6:10)?
16. When the Jews couldn't win the debate fairly, what strategy did they resort to?
17. Of what did the Jews falsely accuse Stephen?
18. What was the unprecedented reaction of the people to Stephen's preaching? What stimulated such a response?
19. What was the primary reason that the testimony which the witnesses gave was false?
20. How did Stephen's face become a rebuke from God directed toward the council? At the same time, what was God showing His approval of?
Pondering the Principles
1.Clearly Stephen had a dynamic impact upon the church, though the shortness of his ministry could make others conclude differently. Like William Carey, he never really got to see the far-reaching effects that his life (and death) had upon the progress of the gospel. Do you find yourself losing heart in sharing the gospel because the results have seemed to be nominal? In this "instant'' generation where we have grown to believe that immediate results are the norm, we are faced with the stark reality that planting and watering the seeds, and harvesting the fruit in the spiritual realm takes time. Do you have a commitment to endure in sharing God's truth even though you may never know what effect your words had upon the people you talked to? Paul did. Meditate upon his words in 2 Timothy 2:8-10.
2.Examine your character in light of Stephen's. Are you "full of faith and of the Holy Spirit,'' which results in being "full of grace and power'' (Ac. 6:5, 8) If your life isn't characterized by a lovingkindness for others and a boldness for the cause of Christ, then maybe you need to go back to step one and increase your trust in God as you yield your life to His control. Are you constantly seeking to know God in a deeper way, and are you allowing Him to take total control of your life whatever the cost? How well do you trust and obey in every area of your life? Take some time to establish some goals and plans for releasing the remaining facets of your life that you have not yet fully entrusted to your Creator and Redeemer.
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