Let’s have a word of prayer as we approach our study this morning.
Father, we do thank You that the privilege is ours to look into the book. Father, we pray that as we examine the life of this most wonderful man, Stephen, that our hearts might be drawn to him, that he might become a pattern and an example for us, and that we might consider him as one whom we can follow, for he followed Christ.
Father, we pray that the Spirit might teach us. Human words are so failing, and human thoughts are so faulty. And while we just commit this time to You, may there be no glory for the one who speaks, but only for the Son of God. In His name we pray, amen.
Acts chapter 6, this morning, is our study, and a continuing study of the acts of the apostles or, if you like it, the acts of the Holy Spirit. This most wonderful book that traces for us the early years of the Church in all of its energy and all of its dynamic and all of its effect on the world.
In today’s study, we come to the ministry of Stephen. And you’ll remember last week that Stephen was selected to be one of the seven men responsible for the business of the early Church, chosen in order to free the apostles for the priority of preaching and teaching and praying.
Stephen thus was introduced to us in chapter 6, verse 5. He then becomes the main subject for the remainder of the 6th chapter and the entire 7th chapter. He’s a very important individual, and even though I think so often we only reflect on Stephen in terms of him as a martyr and know very little else about him, the wealth of information that is here in these passages opens up to us a real depth perception of the character of this man.
He has to be one of the greatest men who ever lived. I would venture to say that he’s on a par with Moses, and that’s a very strong statement. But if you stop to consider Matthew 11:11, in which Jesus made the statement that John the Baptist was the greatest man who ever lived, even greater than Moses, or Abraham, or Elijah, or Elisha, or anybody else – David or Solomon – when you think that John the Baptist was the greatest man who ever lived, and that in the same verse Jesus said, “Nevertheless, he that is in the kingdom of God, the least among them is greater than he,” then there’s a sense in which all believers are-are greater than all of those in the Old Testament, for we have a relationship to Jesus Christ which commits unto us a greatness that is really not our own, and yet is our own. The very greatness of Christ becomes ours through faith.
And so, there’s 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. So, in that sense, Stephen is greater. But even in a – even in the sense of just looking at it from a – from a strategic point in the plan of God, Stephen ranks with Moses. And we’ll see why I believe that as we conclude our message this morning.
Now, the testimony given to Israel in the initial chapters of the book of Acts is basically on the shoulders of Peter. Peter was commissioned as the apostle to the circumcision or to the Jews. The testimony of Peter is coming to an end, at least in the book of Acts. And the testimony of the apostle Paul to the Gentiles is beginning to open up. And in chapter – the end of chapter 7, we introduced Paul, and chapter 8 begins to unfold Paul.
So, we’re seeing the end of Peter and the beginning of Paul and the bridge in the middle is Stephen. Peter ministered to Jerusalem Jews. Paul ministered to Gentiles. Stephen filled the bridge in the middle. He ministered to Jews, but they were Jews in Gentile places or Grecian Jews, scattered Jews. Hellenist Jews. So, he’s very much a bridge. Stephen is also a bridge between Peter and Paul because Peter’s ministry dominate – dominated Jerusalem. Paul’s ministry went to the world. Stephen was the catalyst that sent the Church from Jerusalem into the world, and he did it very indirectly. He did it by being martyred. For when Stephen got killed, persecution broke out, and the result of persecution was the scattering of the Church, and the scattering of the Church had, as its result, the evangelization of Judea, Samaria, and the uttermost part of the earth.
So, in consequence of the death of Stephen, the Church was thrown out of Jerusalem, which is exactly what God wanted to happen anyway, because Jerusalem was done at that point. And I say that only because it says that Jesus wanted them to be witnesses in Jerusalem, and the Jerusalem leaders said, “You have filled Jerusalem with your doctrine.” Therefore, they had accomplished their task; it was time to move on.
And I believe they had really reached those that God had in that city at that moment, because at this juncture, we’ll see what happen. The people who had been favorable all of a sudden turned hostile and killed Stephen, which says to me that God had accomplished His purpose for the moment. He had redeemed the elective Jerusalem, and it was time to move on. And those who were now remaining in Jerusalem were the hostile ones toward Christ.
And so, Stephen is a transition between Peter and Paul; he’s a transition between the evangelization of Jerusalem and the evangelization of the world. In a very real sense, Stephen is a forerunner of Paul. Stephen busied himself communicating the Gospel to foreign Jews by going to their synagogues, apparently. Verse 9 indicates this.
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 and perhaps even went further than that on some occasion prior to this occasion; we do not know. But nevertheless, his ministry was in the synagogues of the foreign Jews. And in that sense, he’s a forerunner of Paul, because if you read anything about Paul’s style, you know that the first thing he did, when he went into a city, was find the synagogue, and he went into the synagogue and reasoned there.
And after reasoning at the synagogue with the Jews who were foreign Jews – scattered Jews – he would then move out to the Gentiles. And so, Stephen, in a very real sense, kind of as a preliminary to the ministry of the apostle Paul, he confronted congregations of Jews and countered the opposition of Jewish bigotry, treated with violence. He was insulted and stoned and so was Paul. So, in a very real sense, the mantle of Stephen fell on Saul of Tarsus, another Hellenist Jews – Jew, and incidentally, 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 this group that was hassling with Stephen here, as we shall see in a moment.
Now, apart from Stephen being strategically important historically, as I’ve just tried to analyze, he was important because of his individual life. You see, men are important in history, but men are also important as men. Men move history, but men also move the hearts of other men by their individuality as much as their effect. And Stephen was not only important because he had great historical effect, he was the catalyst that caused the explosion of the Church. It was his martyrdom that scattered them. But he was also important just because of who he was and the very character of his life.
He is great proof – mark this – he is great proof that the effect of a man’s life has nothing to do with the length of it. And the effect of a man’s ministry has nothing to do with the length of it. His ministry was so short, so very 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 even of a brief work, even of 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. And Stephen did. Took no thought for himself. He did what he knew was right and let the chips fall.
When he was killed it was a sad loss for the Church. It says in chapter 8, verse 2, that they cried a lot over him. I’m sure they missed him. And yet, he didn’t die one day sooner than when he had accomplished all that God wanted him to accomplish. And, dear ones, he will die in vain, in terms of your life, unless you learn what it is that God wants to teach you through him this morning. Don’t let him die in vain in your case. Learn what it is that God wants to say to you through the life of Stephen. Great man. Loveable in every way.
Now, Stephen was the first Christian martyr. Before the death of Stephen, the opposition of the Jews had been limited to threats of imprisonment, had been limited to verbal abuse, and finally to imprisonment and beating. But now, it bursts forth with a roaring fury, a raging kind of madness that results in the execution of Stephen by stoning. They reached the point of fury that can only be satisfied with blood. And thus, they introduce the first in the series of persecutions that have plagued the Church throughout its history. People dying for their faith in Jesus Christ. Stephen began it all.
Now, let’s refresh our memories for just a moment as we come to this text. I always like to kind of sneak up on the text so we understand what we’re doing. The Church was commissioned in chapter 1, and our Lord said, “You shall receive power through the coming of the Spirit. Then you shall be witnesses unto me in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the world.” That was their commission.
In chapter 2, the Church was born, and immediately, the first day they were born, they began to fulfill the commission. Right? Peter stood up and said, “Be this known unto you, and hearken unto my words,” and he proceeded to preach Christ. The church began its evangelism. And it witness effective. They literally turned the world inside out. They had an effect on Jerusalem. So much so, that they became the topic of conversation everywhere. They dominated Jewish society.
Now, what was it that made them effective? Well, we’ve been studying a lot of things, let me summarize. First of all, they were effective. And these are things for us to remember if we want to be effective and evangelism as a church. And indeed we do. They were effective, first of all, because they had unity. Now we’re summarizing previous messages. They had unity. They were of one heart, one mind, had all things in common; they loved each other; they had a powerful, united testimony. And the world looked at them, and they read their love. And there wasn’t any confusion about the clarity of their testimony, and there wasn’t any question about the fact that Jesus Christ could give joy and could bind together broken pieces of-of humanity into a beautiful whole, for they were living proof. They were united.
Secondly, they had courage. They were effective because they were courageous. They were bold, and they boldly confronted the world. Relentlessly they accepted persecution only as an opportunity for further boldness. They had courage. No church really ever affects the world that doesn’t have the courage to stand up in the face of the world and speak the truth. And no believer really makes an effect on the world who doesn’t stand up boldly and speak what he knows God wants him to speak.
Thirdly, they were effective because they had total involvement. Every church suffers from the syndrome of hangers on. You know, I told you there are the people who make things happen, there are the people who watch things happen, and there are the people who haven’t figured out what’s happening. And that’s what the church suffers from. There are always people in the church who hang on and do nothing. It’s a – it’s a – it’s a great, traumatic experience in their spiritual life to be here on Sunday morning, let alone to be involved in communicating Christ during the week, or be out on Sunday night, or be in a Bible study on Thursday evening or whatever goes on in opportunities and so forth. It’s a great thing just for them to manage to get it together for an hour or an hour and 20 minutes. But the Jerusalem church didn’t have any of that; they had total involvement. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and they all spoke the Word with boldness. Everybody was doing it. Now, that’s impact. Right? No dead weight, total involvement.
The next key to their success was content. They knew what they were supposed to do. They knew what their message was. They never got bogged down in social issues; they kept preaching Jesus. They knew to what they were committed in terms of priority. There’s nothing wrong with social things at all. But there are priorities, and they established theirs, and they operated on that basis. They preached Christ crucified, risen, and coming again. And they never got sidetracked. Content, content, content; preaching, preaching; teaching, teaching. Their chief business: the ministry of reconciliation.
Next, they were effective because they had discipline. They dealt with sin. The church that deals with sin is the effective church. The church that deals with sin is the pure church, and the pure church is the – is the church God uses. God uses pure instruments. Sin was dealt with immediately. The price of belonging to that church was very high. You’d have your sin exposed and dealt with. And so, only the true joined. And therefore, they kept the church pure.
Lastly, they were effective because they were organized. Not because they mapped out a big plan and told the Holy Spirit to do it their way, but because they saw what the Spirit of God was doing, and then they put a structure around it to help it be done more smoothly. They chose these men to take care of the business in order that the apostles might be free to teach and preach and pray.
The keys to their evangelism? Very simply: unity, courage, total involvement, content, discipline, and organization. Now, all of that was in good order when we come to verse 8 of chapter 6. All of that had been taken care of. And now, with a base like that, they’re ready to move out, and Stephen is a – is a catalyst that’s going to get them going. And the way he did it is very interesting. It’s very negative in the sense that it – it was a death that brought about the expansion of the Church. But it’s only negative in that sense. It’s positive in the sense that it’s just what God designed, exactly the way He designed it.
Now, God knew it was time for the Church to move out. And Stephen was going to be the key. And indeed he was. You know, I’ve often thought, reading about William Carey, who I think the biographer said that it was some 30 or 35 years of laboring in the mission field without ever seeing a single soul come to Christ. And yet, since that time, all the missions of India have been based upon the work that he did in terms of translation. And so, he has a part in all that God has done since then.
And I think of Stephen, a man who lived and died without ever recording one single convert.
You say, “The poor guy. I mean if he had stuck around and hadn’t been so blatant with those Jews, he might have stuck around long enough to lead somebody to the Lord and get a few stars in his crown. When you think of a nice guy like that running around heaven with a baseball cap on, it’s just not right.” “There’s got to be more for him; he’s such a wonderful fellow.”
Listen, I’m sure that there are all kinds of stars from Judea and Samaria that are going to stud the crown of Stephen and already have. Some plant, some water, and – what? – God gives the increase. Stephen never saw anybody come to Christ, at least that’s recorded in the text.
Now, that’s no excuse for you to say, “Boy, I’ve never seen anybody either. I’ll just leave it that way and pick up on somebody else’s stars.” No, no. If you can come to the commitment that Stephen did and operate like he did and not see anybody come, you’ll be rewarded.
But Stephen, as we know in the – as far as we know in the text, saw nothing happen in response to his preaching except they killed him. And there are always people who could explain that away and say, “Well, Stephen got a little bit too involved, and then he gets so blatant over there, after all that hassle, he stands up and says to them, ‘You killed Christ.’ And that just did it. They grabbed their rocks, and it was over. If he’d a been smart, he could have just quieted down, think of all the people he could have discipled. Think of all the people he could have taught.” This and this and this.
But, you see, he did what was right, and he took no thought for the consequences, because he believed that was in the hands of God. You see? You know, ours is not to reason why, ours is but to do or die. But Stephen was great. He was one of the greatest men that ever lived. No, not as the world counts, but the world doesn’t know what greatness is anyway. The world says, “If you’re born in the right family, you’re great. Mmm.” You know, it’s family name. If you happen to be a Prince Charlie or Duke Somebody or, you know, the daughter of the president or something like – you’re great. That’s greatness. Or if you happen to have a lot of money, you’re great. If you’re successful you’re great.
But God says, “Those are all wrong. That’s not what measures success. Popularity – that’s not success. The world judged Stephen a failure, and they killed him. And God said he was super and gave him a face like the face of an angel. But then the world never does get it right anyway, do they? I mean they killed the Son of God, beheaded Paul, crucified Peter, stoned Stephen. They’re right on every time, doing exactly the opposite. But then that’s the way sin works. The world is never right. Stephen was great.
I want to show you four features of his greatness. And it’s just a simple lesson, but I hope God’ll speak to us through it. Four reasons that he was great - there’s an outline, if you’d like to follow; it’s in your bulletin – his choosing, his character, his courage, and his countenance. We could also add his confession and his conclusion, but that would be chapter 7, and we’d never get to that.
First of all, his choosing. Now, let’s back up into verses 3 to 5 and let me read it to you. This is review, but I’ll pull a point out of here that is important. “Wherefore, brethren” – there needed to be some careful work done in making sure that everybody got equal amounts of the distributed food and money within the Church. Some people couldn’t carry their own load, and so others did, and they needed to be distributing it equally, and there was a little problem here.
So, the apostles say, “‘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.’” We need somebody to handle the organizational thing here. “‘So that we will be able to 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 of the Holy Spirit; and Philip; and Prochorus; and Nicanor; and Timon; and Parmenas; and Nicolas, a proselyte of Antioch.”
Now, notice this. Now, there’s some – probably somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 Christians would be a educated guess, maybe more, certainly not less. And out of those 20,000 to 30,000 Christians, they were to pick 7 men full of the Holy Spirit. And who is the number one name on the list? Stephen. Now, that gives you a little idea of what kind of a man that man was. He was 1 in 30,000. The spirituality of the man goes without saying at this point. It’s assumed by the fact that the Church chose him. And these men had to be of honest report, full of the Holy Spirit, full of wisdom.
And so, we find that when the body went to look for seven men out of the thousands and thousands of Christians, Stephen was one of them. In fact, he’s listed first. And his choosing reveals the high esteem that the Church had for him. And you know something? For a man to be approved by those who know him best is the epitome of approval. Right?
His name is Stephenos, victor’s crown. Certainly he won 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, Stephen virtually establishes his unique spiritual greatness for all time by the very virtue of the fact the Church chose him. He was approved by the body for the highest office the body could appoint. For the apostles were only higher, and who appointed them? Jesus Christ Himself. The highest rank the body could possibly choose from itself were these men at this time in the Church. Stephen was chosen first among them.
You know something? Selection of those to lead in the Church is so important. Serious business. The highest spiritual character, the highest spiritual quality is demanded of them. You people who choose from among you elders and deacons, choose wisely. Choose prayerfully. Choose those whose ministry among you is that of spiritual depth.
And you who serve, you who stand as elders and deacons, even as I do, make sure that you understand the tremendous spiritual responsibility that belongs to you. When you come to the writings of the apostles Paul to Timothy and Titus, in which he qualifies the instructions to deacons and elders, he doesn’t lower the standards from Acts 6. If anything, he makes the qualifications more stiff. Here there’s no qualifications about marriage, family, relationship to the outside world, attitudes, drinking, and all these things. But Paul lays all those in addition to these.
And so, the leadership in the Church today is to 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 that he must have been.
And you know something? The choice was validated by the second point, his character. Everything about him indicates that they chose well. Let’s look at his character, and it’s in verses 5, and then we’ll jump down to really where we’re going to start in verse 8.
His character – and mark it now – this should be the standard for every Christian. Verse 5, it says, “Stephen, a man full of” – what? – “faith and the Holy Spirit.” Now, that guy was full of two things: the faith and the Holy Spirit. Now “full.” We need to talk about that so we understand what this means. I want you to understand this, because it’s a beautiful thought here. Full of faith. Full from plērēs, the verb plēroō out of fill up means to be filled up.
Now, I’ve told you before, and I repeat, the concept of filling in the spiritual realm or really, for that matter, in other realms in the New Testament, has to do with domination or control. When it says he was full of faith, it means that that which totally controlled him was faith.
For example, the Bible talks about people who are full of rage, full of sorrow, full of joy, full of love, full of madness, full of anger. And what that means is that they were controlled at that moment by that thing.
In life, there is peacefulness, a calm. On the other end of the scale, 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, and he’s clear over here, and nothing is mixed with rage. He’s-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 and be somewhere in the middle. He has unloaded everything on one end; he is totally controlled by sorrow. The idea of filling is control.
Now, there is in the balance of every man a scale. And on one end is believing God, faith, and on the other end is doubt. Got it? And mostly you do a little of this, see? “we believe,” and “we’re not too sure we believe,” and, so we go like this. Stephen was full of faith. There wasn’t any doubt around. He was full of faith. Remember the man, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.” See? That wasn’t Stephen. Stephen was full of faith. You know what dominated his life? Trust. He believed God. He was dominated by that. There wasn’t even any mixture in hit. He just believed God.
You say, “Well, what specifically did he believe in?”
If you study the sermon in chapter 7, it tells you everything he believed in basically. First of all, he believed that God ruled history. That’s in verses 1 through 51. The whole 7th chapter is his-his great sermon on how God rules history. Stephen believed, “God rules history. I’m a part of history. God rules me. God determines destiny. I’m within the framework of destiny; God has determined my destiny. What am I going to worry about? God’s in control.”
He could say with the apostle Paul, “If I live, I live unto the Lord; if I die, I die unto the Lord. So, if I live or die, I’m the Lord’s. It doesn’t matter.” You see, Stephen was full of faith.
Now, there are many Christians who have faith, but they’re not full of faith. They’re full of faith and doubt, 60/40, 70/30, 80/20. Stephen was 100/0, all faith. The Bible even talks about all faith, doesn’t it? He not only believed God was controlling history, but he believed Jesus was the Messiah. He totally believed that. He believed Jesus was the fulfillment of all Messianic prophesy, and that also was indicated in chapter 7, verse 52.
Thirdly, he believed Jesus was risen and exalted to the right hand of the Father. That’s in 55 and 56. Fourthly, he believed Jesus cared for him, verse 59. Fifth, he believed in the Holy Spirit, verse 51. He believed. And he rested in his belief, and 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 of it. Have you ever tried to run your own life? “I can’t do that, because I must keep y life in this little box that I’ve got for it.”
Now, he knew that the only person controlling his life was God. He absolutely believed it, so he did whatever God told him to do and didn’t worry about it.
You say, “But if I do that, uh, I’ll-I’ll lose my job and,” See? Well, that’s because you don’t believe God’s running your life. You think you need to help Him. Stephen didn’t think that. He said, “God is in control; He runs the show; I believe it. So, I do what He tells me.” Full of faith.
Now, faith has different dimensions, varying levels. I men we – I think all of us believe God. If somebody says to you, “Do you have faith in God?”
There’s all levels of that. And I think many of us have given our soul to God; we haven’t yet given our body 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. You know? “Well, I’ve given my soul to God; now my body, I try to hang onto that.” See?
Some of us haven’t been able to give God our emotions. We can’t trust God with certain things in life, and so, we get emotionally uptight, and we worry, and we fret. You know? I mean why pray when you can worry. I mean why give it to God when you can get ulcers over it yourself.
But you see, Stephen bet his eternal destiny on God and didn’t worry about it. He believed; he was full of faith. What a classic illustration. He just figured if there’s going to be pain, there’s going to be torment, and there’s going to be death, and that’s what God wants, I’ll do it. He bet his life on God.
Now, secondly, look at verse 5, he was full of the Holy Spirit. This is terrific, too. It means that he was under – he was under the control of the Spirit. He was not only totally dominated by faith, but he was totally dominated by the Spirit of God, which meant he trusted and he obeyed. You see? Full of faith is to trust, and to be full of the Spirit is to be obeying His control. Right?
The two greatest words in the Christian life: trust and obey. And Stephen had them both. He believed God; 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 Spirit? It means to be under the control of the Holy Spirit. And Paul says to every Christian, “Be filled with the Spirit,” Ephesians 5:18.
And that early Church, it just says, “They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the Word with boldness.” Bang, bang. You don’t get filled with the Holy Spirit and say, “Oh, I’m filled with the Spirit. Now what am I going to do? Let’s see, uh, gee...”
No, if you’re filled with the Spirit, you’re just doing it. I use the illustration of a hand in a glove. You put a hand in the glove, the glove doesn’t say, “Oh, hand, show me the way to go.” The glove just goes because the hand’s in it. The Christian is a glove. If you’re filled with the Spirit, you don’t need to ask anything; you just do whatever the energy of the Spirit does in you.
And so, once Stephen was filled with the Spirit of God, he was doing already. And so, he was full of faith, full of the Spirit. Two things: believe God, and yield to His Spirit. That’s the balance of the Christian life: trust and obey. Very simple.
Now, I want you to compare with that verse 8. Stephen – here’s something else – full of – some of your Bibles say faith, some of them say grace. The better reading is grace. Now, let me give you a free-for-nothing footnote. I say – I say this frequently, helping you to see a different word than you have in your King James. The King James is based upon Textus Receptus, which is an ancient manuscript. Since the time that King James was written, way back in 1600, the Textus Receptus has been replaced in terms of scholarship by the Westcott and Hort text. And this is simply a study of archaeology and picking up old manuscripts and putting together which we – what we believe is the correct manuscripts and all of this.
The New American Standard and most of the modern translations are based upon Westcott and Hort’s text as opposed to the old Textus Receptus which didn’t have the benefit of some of the later archeological discoveries.
Consequently, when the New American Standard says grace, it is reflecting Westcott and Hort as opposed to the old one reflecting Textus Receptus. And that’s why, sometimes, there’s a word difference. But you’ll find that even though from time to time there may be one word difference, the content of the Word of God is accurate, and it is the same as God intended it to be. The simple words that are indicated in it only show us the humanity of its transportation. But if God could write it, believe me, beloved, He can preserve it. Do you believe that?
And so, we believe that the Scripture we have in our hands is the way God intended us – for us to have it. And He’s also given us the benefit of this archeology and study to be sure that what we have is accurate.
So, all that is only a footnote. Stephen was full of grace. And make a little line through there and write grace if you have faith. “Full of grace and power” – oh, this is terrific.
You say, “I don’t know why it’s so terrific; it sounds like what he said in verse 5. It sounds repetitious.”
Oh, no, not at all. “He was full of” – watch it – “full of faith and the Spirit, therefore, he was full of grace and power.” Now, watch this, to be full of grace, charis, which means God’s favor, is a result of being full of faith.
Now, there are several kinds of grace, but all grace comes as a result of faith. Right? For by grace are you saved – what? – through faith. Grace comes from faith. How about 1 Peter, where he says, “If you’re willing to suffer for me, upon you shall be the Spirit of grace.” If you’ll believe God to the point where you die for him, or where you confront your world, God’ll give you dying grace. Believe that? I believe that when a martyr comes to the place where he dies for his faith in Jesus Christ, that God dispenses to him divine dying grace. And so, there’s grace that comes in salvation, and it comes by faith. There’s grace that comes in persecution, 1 Peter 4, it – or 3 – it comes by faith.
And watch this, then there’s the grace of loving kindness toward others. That also comes by faith. And I think that may be the dominant kind of grace he’s talking about here. He was full of grace toward others. Now, that may be part of the reason they chose him to be one responsible for helping the widows and everything, because of the graciousness of his character. But more than that, look at his grace at the end of chapter 7, in verse 60. They’ve just been stoning him, and the rocks are smashing against his head and shattering his body. And he looks up to heaven, “And he cries with a loud voice, ‘Lord, lay not this sin to their charge.’” Now, that is nothing short of graciousness, is it? That is loving kindness. That is bestowing favor upon those who kill you.
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. You see? And he wasn’t busy trying to protect himself. He was only happy to die if God wanted him to die, and consequently, he never had anything for anybody else but a gracious kind of loving kindness.
The only – he only way a man can ever really graciously love everybody else is when he’s not trying to protect himself. Did you get that? That’s worth 15 cents. A quarter, thank you. Do I hear 35?
When a man really believes God, it is at that point that he extends grace toward everybody else. Because, you see, everybody is 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 your box.
But, you see, Stephen wasn’t trying to protect himself. So, in verse 60, he says, “Don’t blame them, Lord.”
You say, “Where did he get the grace to say that?”
In verse 59 it shows us his faith. He said, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” I’m coming up; get ready.
You say, “Had he ever been there before?”
“How did he know it was there?”
He believed. Faith, then grace. So, every time you find grace, you always find it coming as a response to faith. Whoever believes God, God dispenses grace to. So, being full of faith, he was full of grace.
Let’s look at the second thing, verse 8. He was full of power. Where do you think he got that? Because it says in verse 5, “He was full of” – what? – “the Holy Spirit.” And if you’re full of the Holy Spirit, what are you? Full of power.
So, you see, what you have in verse 8 is a statement of identity - what you have in verse 5 is a statement of identity, in verse 8 is a statement of effect. He was full of faith; therefore he was gracious. He was full of the Spirit; therefore, he witness powerful. And his power was seen in that very verse, “He did great wonders and miracles among the people,” verse 8.
Listen, you will be filled with the Spirit of God, and you will be powerful. “Ye shall receive power after the Holy Spirit is” – what? – “come upon you.” Stephen was the right man. Therefore, he gave off the right vibrations. Now watch it, trust and obey equals grace and power. It’s a simple spiritual principle outline for us right here.
You see, now watch this, when the man is right in his own heart, when he’s 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. You see, the right man does the right thing. And you never know grace toward men, and you never know power toward men until you know full faith, until you’re filed with the Spirit. Simple spiritual principle, very practical.
And, boy, he had power. His power’s indicated in verse 8, “He did great wonders and miracles among the people.” Here he comes doing miracles. This leads me to believe that he’s more than just what we think of as a deacon, another reason I don’t think those men in 6 are just the deacons as we know them later in Paul’s writings. They are special men. I think he’s more like a New Testament prophet. So, the power of God and the grace of God was exhibited in his life because he believed God and obeyed the Spirit. Those are the highest possible qualifications for the Christian’s experience.
All right, so, we see his greatness in his choosing and his character. Thirdly, his courage. And this we’ll look at verses 9 to 14, and it’s a very simple narrative. So, it’ll only take us a minute to look at it. But he had courage. There’s nothing as wonderful as courage. You know? Terrific thing, courage. So often a missing thing, but terrific.
Stephen went right into the – right into the hostile world. I mean he was so full of faith, and so full of the Holy Spirit, but he had so much love and so much power, he just went right - smashed into the whole system.
Now, the two key words that I – that I pull out of this whole passage in verse 13, “This man” – hear the word – “ceaseth not” – isn’t that good? Can’t stop that guy. He won’t shut up. He was just like the rest of those early Christians; they couldn’t shut them up. “He ceaseth not.” Oh, it’s so easy for us to quit and chicken out and cop out at the first sign of resistance. No, not Stephen. Let’s look at this, verse 9. Let’s see how he began. “Then there arose certain of the synagogue” – and again, it – the word “arose” doesn’t mean they got out of their chairs, it means they got their dander up, right? – “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 Asia” – what were they doing? – “disputing with Stephen.” The word “disputing” means having a fair debate. All right, let’s sit down and have a fair debate. They pulled all their brains together. Notice they got the Libertines, Cyrenians, Alexandrians, Cilicians, and Asians to talk to Stephen. That says something about Stephen. They had a little meeting there.
Now, Satan has only three tactics to destroy the Church. I gave them to you last week. Number one, persecution. Shut the saints up by scaring them to death, or shut them up by making them feel that they’ll be implicated in some kind of a religious movement, and people will think they’re oddballs, whatever, physical persecution or mental. We talked about that.
The second tactic Satan uses is sin in the individual members. Blatant sin in the life of a Christian destroys the testimony of Christ in the world. The third one is dissension in the body. Right? We’ve talked about those. Satan tried the other three already; now he’s back to number one again, persecution.
Stephen has confronted these people. Now, notice the word “synagogue,” sunagōgē. It means a gathering together. And the synagogues were places where Jewish communities assembled to read the Scripture and worship. And it’s interesting, I think, for us to note that these synagogues probably began back at the Babylonian captivity when the Jews were scattered apart from the temple. And they started these little meeting places.
And even when they went back and rebuilt the temple, they maintained these little things to some degree, so that by the time of Christ, in the New Testament, historians say there were at last – listen to this – 480 synagogues in Jerusalem. Now, we thought that that was a problem that only the Church had, having 75 churches in the same town. Can’t get together. They couldn’t get together too well either. That’s an age-old problem. You know? Everybody’s God their own little deal, and want to do it their way, and if you don’t like it, we’ll take our little ball and go down the street, you know, and pack up our scroll and start our own thing. You see?
It only took – it only took ten adults to constitute a congregation for a synagogue. And so, they had 480 of them at least. Now, some of these synagogues were foreign-speaking synagogues. They were kept/maintained in the city of Jerusalem for the foreign Jews who came in at the feast seasons and for pilgrimages.
So, there would be a synagogue for the Libertines, Cyrenians, Alexandrians, Cilicians, and Asians. And it would be maintained by certain of their principal who would remain in Jerusalem to keep it functioning. And then when they came there, they would go there because they spoke their language, and they were their people and so forth. So, they were very much pocketed in little segments.
Now, scholars tell us – some say that there are five different synagogues indicated here. Some say that there are three, that there are several combinations. Some say that all of these went to the same one. I hesitate to believe that. I think the Libertines probably had one. The Cyrenians and Alexandrians probably had one together, because they were both from Africa. And the Cilicians and Asians, because they were both from Asia Minor, probably had one. And so, I lean toward the fact that there were probably three synagogues in view here, but all these people came into one meeting to argue with Stephen. Apparently he’d hit all of them at one time or another, and they got together to have a debate about what he was saying.
Now, the word “Libertines” is interesting. This introduces to us a community of Jews known as Freedmen. Pompey, in 63 B.C., had gone into Israel and taken slaves from the Jews. He had hauled them off to Rome. And after a certain number of years had released them. They, then, had kind of moved out of Rome and established a community of these freed slaves, and they were called the Libertines. Well, in Jerusalem, they had their synagogue.
And then there were groups from Africa. The Cyrenians, a city in Africa in the province of Libya, had a large Jewish colony, and Alexandria, as you know, named for Alexander the Great, was the capital of Egypt. And there was a great community of Jews there. In fact, very scholarly Jews lived in Alexandria and did much work on the Old Testament. So, they had their synagogue.
Then there was Cilicia and Asia, two districts in Asia Minor. And by Asia Minor, we mean north of Israel, occupying an area from what is near Syria west through the area of Turkey and so forth and so on. The principle city of Cilicia, notice the word there, was Tarsus. Hang onto that thought. Who was from Tarsus? Saul. So, guess who Stephen was arguing with? I’m sure the brainiest brain in that whole conglomerate of foreign Jews was Saul. I mean he was sharp. He had studied at the feet of Gamaliel, but you want to know something. He was no match for the sanctified mind of Stephen. Boy, I’d like to have gotten in a debate between an unregenerate Saul and a regenerate Stephen. Wouldn’t that have been a thriller? That’s one thing that’s not in here, but I’m going to ask the Lord or Stephen or Paul when I get there what went on.
But anyway, Asia Minor, Cilicia, was very near Syria. It had a large Jewish colony. The principle city as Tarsus. And Saul was from there. And we know that Saul was form there. And we know that Saul was around, because in 7:58, it says, “And they laid the clothes – their clothes” – they took their shirts – their coats off in order to throw the rocks, and they put their clothes down at the feet of a young man named Saul. And verse 1 of chapter 8 says Saul consented to Stephen’s death. So, he must have been involved in this whole thing.
Then there’s Asia, which is a Roman province west of Cilicia. The chief city, I suppose, there would be Ephesus; another important city, Pergamos. So, here he was, and he’d confronted them. They’d all come together; they were disputing. The word “disputing” means having a debate. A fair debate. Two brilliant minds perhaps dominating Saul and Stephen.
Verse 10, “And they were not able to resist the wisdom and the spirit” – small S – “by which he spoke.” They couldn’t handle Stephen. That is so terrific. He won the debate. Now, in a very heated debate, over critical issues, when you lose the debate, what’s the next tactic? Slander. Right? Well, you see it in politics all the time. If you don’t have an argument, you just defame the guy’s character. And so, they took after Stephen. They couldn’t beat them in a fair debate, so let’s get him by slander.
They couldn’t handle, number one, his wisdom; number two, his spirit. I think it’s a small S there. That means his demeanor. His energy, his power, his zeal, his sincerity, his fervency, his ability to create. 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,” and I always say, “Knowledge and enthusiasm in the preaching itself. You got to say something and you got to say it so people get excited about it.” Now you know my secrets.
Well, they couldn’t handle Stephen; they couldn’t resist him. One Spirit-controlled mind was more than a match for the conglomerate minds. Couldn’t handle him. So, they decided there was only one other thing to do, verse 11, “And then they suborned” – that’s a strange word. What it means is they hired false witnesses – “they suborned men” - they hired perjures; they paid them off – “who said, ‘we have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.’” You notice who they ranked first. That shows you what they thought of the law. So, they hired false witnesses.
You say, “That’s terrible.”
Well, that’s nothing new. Remember Jesus, at His trial? What’d they do? Hired false witnesses. What did they accuse Jesus of? Blasphemy. Same thing. Same thing. Verse 11 says that they accused him of blasphemous words against Moses and God. Now, blasphemy is to speak of evil of something that God deems sacred. Blasphemy is to speak evil of what God says is sacred. And so, they figure that God had said Moses was sacred, and if any blasted Moses, he was blaspheming.
Now, notice that they held Moses in great esteem. They claimed that Paul – or that Stephen had spoken evil of Moses. Later on, they claimed the same thing about Paul. But here they claim Stephen has spoken evil of Moses. And that would really be treading on soil; well, that would really be walking on holy ground. No doubt, I think, Stephen probably argued. And he probably banged right into the legalism of Israel and probably said something like, “The law of Moses can’t save you.” He probably said, “The old covenant is passed by; there’s a new one here in Christ. And the law can’t save; only Christ can.” And they were – they were figuring, “Well, that-that is blasphemy.”
Now, I don’t think he did it in a blasphemous way, or they wouldn’t – it wouldn’t say in the text they set up false witnesses. They would have been truly reporting what he did if he had done it in a blasphemous way. But the witnessing was false. Not that Stephen hadn’t told them that Moses was to be replaced by Christ, but it was in the way that they said it. And I’ll say more about that in a minute.
They were so zealous for the law, that what Stephen was doing was dynamite. But again, that’s his courage. I mean he could have gone in there an emasculated the Gospel and watered it down so 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. And then they accused him of blaspheming God. And I imagine he was presenting the deity of Christ, because this is what they did in John 10:36. They said, “You’re a blasphemer; you’re claiming to be God.”
So, here he was, talking about the new covenant, and the person of Christ, and they accused him of blaspheming Moses and God. And in fact, he did neither. Verse 12, but it was effective slander and set up false witnesses. Verse 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” – they stirred up the people. Wow, that’s a first. The elders and the scribes of the Sanhedrin have been stirred up for a long time. The people have never been stirred up before, but now they get to the people. Why? Because I think most of the elect had already been taken from out of Jerusalem, and what was left was hostility. And the people got stirred up. Those are the same people that a few chapters before were really in favor of the church. And they caught him. The word “caught” means much violence. Notice it’s used in Luke 8:29 and Acts 27:15 if you want to compare what it’s used for. It’s a word that means violence. They actually seized him and dragged him away.
Isn’t it interesting how the people have changed? Isn’t it interest that a little while before, the leaders wouldn’t be violent with the apostles because the people might stone the leaders? And now the people themselves are violent with Stephen.
Now watch this, this is a good point, it is a fine line between a willing hearing of the Gospel and a violent hatred of the Gospel. It’s the fine line of apostasy. A man comes up, and he’s willing, and he listens, and he rejects and walks away, and he hates it violently. It’s a fine line. So, they brought him to the council.
“They set up false witnesses” – verse 13 – “who said this, ‘This man ceases not to speak blasphemous words against this holy place and the law” – he’s knocking the temple, boys; knocking the law. And they really twisted it around. Verse 14, “‘For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth’” – they always throw Nazareth in there, because it was a crummy town – “‘this Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy this place and shall change the customs which Moses deliver to us.”
You know what? You say, “Well, how was that false witnesses? It’s all true.”
You’re right. It was only false because of the slant they gave to it, because at no point had Stephen really blasphemed God at all. And because of the term “false witnesses,” I believe Stephen presented this in a very positive way.
They could have come to the council and said this, “Stephen is claiming that the hope of Moses has come. Stephen is claiming that that prophet which Moses predicted is here. Stephen is claiming that-that all of that satisfaction which needed to be repeated in the old covenant was finally accomplished in the death of Christ. Stephen is saying Messiah has come. Stephen is saying that the old covenant has now led into the new covenant, which our prophet Jeremiah predicted. Stephen is saying that the access to God which the old system couldn’t bring, Christ can bring. Stephen is saying that He who is the fulfillment of the law is here. Stephen is saying that the dreams of all of us who’ve hoped for Messiah have come true.” For I believe that’s what Stephen had been saying.
But you see, they perverted it and said, “Stephen blasphemes.” And they took it only from the negative. “He is destroying all of this, destroying all of this.” They said nothing of what it was that he was saying of positive truth. They twisted it to sound like insurrection and revolution.
But notice in verse 13, “This man ceaseth not.” He never stopped. He knew what this message would do, yet he did it. He preached it, never flinched. Oh, what courage.
And then in 7:51, he got right in there, on trial before them – 52 I mean – and he says, the end of verse 52, “You have been now the betrayers and murderers; you killed the Just One.” Oh, man, Stephen, why did you say that? That’s the end. Wham, the rocks came. Courage. And he had it. And he exhibited it.
So, his greatness was in his choosing, his character, and his courage. And he said what was true, and he counted not the cost.
Lastly, quickly, his greatness is seen in his countenance. Don’t turn off your brain on this point; I want you to get it. It’s very important. Verse 15, “And all that sat in the council, looking steadfastly on him” – watch this – “saw his face as it had been the face of an angel.” Boy, that is terrific. That is one of the greatest rebukes I’ve ever read. They’re saying, “Evil, evil; blasphemer, blasphemer,” and he’s sitting there with a holy face. Can you imagine the rebuke? Whoever’s seeing him says “There’s something wrong, guys.” See? The face of an angel, a holy angel of God, manifesting the glow of God that he receives from being in the presence of God Stephen had on his face.
I believe Stephen manifested the glory of God, for Peter says, “The one who suffers persecution, upon him shall be the Spirit of grace and” – what? – “glory.” I believe Stephen had radiating from his face the glory of God. What a rebuke. Unbelievable rebuke. They had said, “You blaspheme Moses.” But listen to this. Listen to this, God had put on Stephen the face of the glory of God. Only one other man in the history of the world ever had the glory of God on his face. Who was it? Moses.
I said at the very beginning, I think Stephen ranks with Moses. And I think God was rebuking them by saying, “Only one other man ever looked like that man looks, and that’s Moses. And I made Moses look like that, because I approved of his covenant, and I now make Stephen look like that, because I approve of the new covenant.” Do you see what God’s saying? God’s saying, “Both of those were mine.”
And in Exodus 33 and 34, you can read the story yourself of the glory of God on the face of Moses. And as he came down from the mountain with the glory of God, what did he have in his arm? The old covenant. And Stephen there has proclaimed the new covenant, and God puts on his face the glow of God. And what is God saying? “I approved of Moses; I approve of Stephen.” Don’t you see? This is fulfillment.
I need to read you this, this is absolutely fantastic. Second Corinthians 3:7 to 11. I’m going to read it to you, listen. “But if the ministration of death” – now, that’s the term for the old covenant under Moses – “written and engraved in stones” – right? The law was written in stone, wasn’t it – “if that was glorious, so that the children of Israel couldn’t look on the face of Moses, because the glory was overwhelming” – if that was glorious, the old covenant, and Moses was lit up, and that covenant was glorious, verse 8 – “how shall not he ministration of the Spirit be” – what? – more glorious?”
Listen to the next verse, “For if the ministration of condemnation be glory, much more doth the ministration of righteousness exceed in glory.” Verse 11, “For if that which is done away was glorious, much more that which remaineth is glorious.”
What was God doing, putting the glory of God on the face of Stephen? He was approving the new covenant in the face of Israel. What a rebuke. God’s great man, Stephen, with the glory of God on his face. What made him great? His choosing, his character, his courage, and his countenance. Let’s pray.
Father, we thank You that You desire from us the same kind of greatness, and You’ve given us the same kind of capacity. God help us to give the – to live the kind of lives that cause others to lift us up as examples and patterns and leaders for them to follow.
May we be full of faith, full of the Spirit, and thus full of grace and full of power. May we be bold, relentless, courageous, expendable, preaching truth. And may we give off the glory of God, for we know that’s possible. We know the apostle Paul said, “As we gaze into the glory of Jesus Christ, we’re transformed into His image by the Holy Spirit from glory to glory. May we radiate Christ even as Stephen did.
Father, we believe Saul probably never forgot Stephen; may we never forget either. We pray in Christ’s name, amen.
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