If you’re like me, though inspiring, it can be difficult to relate to the way God used the Apostles in the book of Acts. These men had been hand-selected by Jesus. They were champions of the faith, pillars of the church, authors of the New Testament. Good grief their names will be written on the cornerstones of the New Jerusalem (Revelation 21:14).
Though it shouldn’t be the case it can be so easy to write off the example they set for us because of the unique experiences and exposure they had with Jesus.
And yet, as you work your way through the history of the early church one man in particular jumps off the page… Stephen! Here’s why I love and am encouraged by his story - In contrast to most of the characters in Acts, Stephen is incredibly relatable because his Christian experience began and developed no differently than most of ours.
Consider… Stephen wasn’t an Apostle. There is nothing in the record that implies he had been present for the earthly ministry of Jesus, nor that he had been an eyewitness of Jesus’ death, resurrection, or ascension. Though it’s possible he may have been in Jerusalem to see the events that occurred on Pentecost, it’s unlikely he was part of the original 120. You see in Stephen we have presented the first second-generation Christian in Scripture.
Sure, by the time he’s introduced to us in Acts 6 Stephen had developed such a reputation that he was hand-selected to be one of the first deacons; and yet, nothing about his story indicates he had been afforded any type of privilege.
This morning we’re going to take a hard look at Stephen (not only because he’s relatable), but because his life illustrates the “Fingerprints of Faithfulness.” In Stephen, we will see a man with no advantage or special standing used by God to affect his world in such an incredible way that he’s included in the pages of Scripture. You see Stephen is important because he illustrates the exact same life God has called you and me to live as well.
Acts 6:7-15, “Then the word of God spread, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith. And Stephen, full of faith and power, did great wonders and signs among the people. Then there arose some from what is called the Synagogue of the Freedmen (Cyrenians, Alexandrians, and those from Cilicia and Asia), disputing with Stephen. And they were not able to resist the wisdom and the Spirit by which he spoke.”
“Then they secretly induced men to say, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” And they stirred up the people, the elders, and the scribes; and they came upon him, seized him, and brought him to the council. They also set up false witnesses who said, “This man does not cease to speak blasphemous words against this holy place and the law; for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs which Moses delivered to us.” And all who sat in the council, looking steadfastly at him, saw his face as the face of an angel.”
For some reason and at some point (maybe by accident or through the invitation or witness of another Christian) Stephen was exposed to the message of the Gospel. As he listened to the teaching of God’s Word, he began to grapple under the weight of a growing conviction.
Keep in mind “Stephanos” was a Hellenistic Jew living in Jerusalem. Though of Hebrew descent, he had been raised in the Grecian world. While attempting to live a life consistent with the Law, you can imagine Stephen struggled with the allure of culture.
Whether it occurred immediately or over a period of time, at some juncture, because of this growing conviction of sin, the failure of religion, the emptiness of the world, and the ultimate persuasive case for Christ, Stephen broke down and made a decision to follow Jesus.
As we all he came to the point where he rejected his religious self-righteousness, repented of sin, surrendered his life to Christ, and accepted Jesus’ sacrificial atonement. And in this moment of conversion, Stephen immediately experienced regeneration by being filled with the Holy Spirit. His life once shackled by sin and weighed down by the burden of religious condemnation had now been set free by Jesus. Stephen experienced redemption!
It seems reasonable to conclude that soon after making this decision Stephen would go public with his faith by being baptized. He would declare to the world (his family, friends, even those proving hostile to the church) that he was now a follower of Jesus. You can imagine (especially with the present climate) this decision carried with it severe consequences.
Additionally, we can also reason Stephen immediately began attending this local church in Jerusalem where he would enjoy all the benefits of being part of this new “family of God.” In the process, he would receive from the church Godly instruction through the faithful teaching of God’s Word, and experience the joy of genuine community benefitting from the accountability of these new Godly influences.
As Stephen continued to grow in his newfound faith he would come to realize that being part of a church community was not only about receiving but was also about giving. It would appear that in response to all Jesus had done in his life, Stephen, without title or specific directives, simply started serving the needs of those around him.
Over time, as he continued to grow in the knowledge and grace of God, Stephen would slowly develop a “good reputation” before all the people. He was teachable, modeled a humble spirit, and remained submissive to the authorities God had placed over him.
Acts 6 is clear that because of this good reputation and servant’s heart when this need arose concerning the care of these widows all of the people along with the Apostles universally agreed that Stephen was the ideal candidate for this new position of Deacon.
As such we know Stephen was a man “full of wisdom, the Holy Spirit, and faith” (conviction and grace) and one in whom the Holy Spirit was demonstrating great “power” (dynamis).
This morning's text reveals this “Holy Spirit power” not only equipped Stephen with the “gift of service” in order to fulfill his role as Deacon, but empowered him also with the “gift of evangelism” and the ability to perform “great wonders and signs.” God was clearly at work!
The very fact Stephen was even having these “disputes” with the “Freedmen” revealed this “table waiter” also had a heart for the lost! I can see him finishing up his work around the church only to then hurry off to the local watering hole to share the Gospel. Keep in mind, as in the ministry of Jesus and later the Apostles, the manifestation of these “great wonders and signs” served to validate Stephen’s anointing as well as his message!
The first thing you should note from Stephen’s example is that a Christian’s purpose is to simply be faithful with the things God places before you.
I have found that Christians really struggle with the concept of purpose. While most want their lives to have meaning, many grow frustrated in their present circumstances because they don’t see how these things fit within God’s overarching plan for their lives.
Because most have the sincere desire to see their lives genuinely matter for the Kingdom of God, what appears mundane and pointless simply becomes too difficult to handle. Many Christians who find themselves shackled to a job in which they see no eternal value end up wondering if they’re actually wasting the very life God has for them.
Part of this struggle rests with the conventional wisdom that in order to successfully reach a destination one must first know the destination you’re seeking to reach. Once these two data points are determined we can then map out the best, most efficient course of action. Many reason that if God would just reveal His purpose for their lives then they’d know what it is they’re supposed to be doing and be able to plan accordingly.
Sadly, this mindset contributes to this frustration because God actually works completely counterintuitive to this entire way of thinking. Instead of the destination determining the course of action, the course of action is actually the destination.
In a teaching in Luke 19 on the topic of service, Jesus established a very simple principle concerning the Kingdom of God. He said, “If you’re faithful over a little, I will make you faithful over much.” While it is true this means proven faithfulness is the only way to greater responsibilities, Jesus is also telling us that the purpose for each of our lives is not the task at hand but being faithful in the task at hand.
“Little” and “much” come secondary to “faithful.” If you see God’s purpose for your life as being some work God wants you to do as opposed to simply being faithful to do the work God has before you, then I hope you understand you will only find the Christian experience to be frustrating.
This is why I think the whole idea of trying to live a “Purpose Driven Life” (while packaging nicely in the self-improvement section of Amazon) actually fosters a lot of Christian frustration because it’s not inline with the way God has structured the life of faith.
You see Stephen demonstrates that the purpose for every believer is actually the act of being faithful concerning the things God has charged to your care. Though Stephen would progress to greater responsibilities (unrecognized simple servant, to recognized servant leader, to anointed evangelist) never once was he ever focused on anything other than faithfully caring for the things God had directly placed before him!
Christian… If you trust God with your life, then you need to recognize that no matter how trivial, pointless, or mundane you might think the tasks in front of you might be, God has placed these things into your life for a reason. Understand, there is an eternal purpose in what’s before you… Your purpose is to be faithful.
Keep in mind, the most glorious words you ever what to hear Jesus say to you is “well done good and faithful servant… Enter into the joy of your Lord.” It would seem the evaluation method of heaven focuses on faithfulness, not accomplishment.
The second thing you should note from Stephen’s example is that a Christian should expect the world to treat you like they treated Jesus.
Though Stephen’s primary role was church-centric (caring for the physical needs of those within the church body), as mentioned, it would seem he had the heart to preach the Gospel to the lost. Some view Stephen as an evangelist, others that he was the first apologist.
Either way, we do know that Stephen’s targeted audience were Jews from the “Synagogue of the Freedmen.” History tells us this was a prominent synagogue in Jerusalem that had branches in Cyrene (an important African city located in the province of Libya), Alexandria (the capital of Egypt), and Cilicia. Needless to say, this was a tough audience!
Note: Cilicia was a Roman Province located on the southern half of modern-day Turkey. What’s notable is that Tarsus was the capital city and likely home of the synagogue. Since Paul was from Tarsus many believe he was a member of this group.
Luke tells us these men came “disputing with Stephen.” The word “disputing” in the Greek presents the idea was that they would gather to “debate” matters of theology. In the process of their conversations, it would appear Stephen’s efforts actually bore some fruit. Luke says “they were not able to resist” (to withstand or oppose) and then he lists the two reasons why… “The wisdom and the Spirit by which he spoke.”
The word “wisdom” is the Greek word “sophia” meaning “full of intelligence.” This indicates Stephen was able to substantiate his arguments with facts and defend his positions using a combination of Scripture, logic, and reason. Keep in mind… Stephen went into these situations armed. He studied and was well prepared! Tragically, too many stupid people speak for Christianity.
This word “Spirit” is the Greek word “pneuma.” Though we know this word refers to the Holy Spirit, the word can also mean a person has “a pleasant disposition.” Note: Though his audience perceived Stephen to be a pleasant person, we understand they were (without knowing it) experiencing the Spirit of God working in and through the life of Stephen. He was being the “salt of the earth.”
You can imagine, in addition to the soundness of his arguments, what made Stephen so persuasive was that he was able to present his position in a way that the opposing side didn’t feel attacked or respond in a defensive manner. Apparently, the way he argued was just as persuasive as the arguments he was making.
Sadly, the arguments of many Christians are lost because of pride, ego, and attitude. Never forget the goal is not only to win the argument but also gain a soul.
Though Luke indicates there were those “not able to resist,” he also makes it abundantly clear there was a contingency of those who not only resisted but grew vindictive in the process. It’s true a hurt ego and a pricked conscious can be a dangerous combination.
What’s interesting about this story is that we see the same playbook being used to target Stephen that was used some four years earlier to target Jesus. We’re told, “They secretly induced men… Set up false witnesses… And stirred up the people.”
In the Greek, this means those who were resisting Stephen “privately bribed men to commit a crime by spreading false accusations.” These men would falsely claim that Stephen had been speaking blasphemous words against Moses, God, the Temple, the Law, and their customs. In essence, they twisted his words.
It would see their goal was to intentionally incite a mob to act out against Stephen without fully knowing what Stephen had done worthy of such an outcry. Note: This outrage did not reflect the general sentiment towards Stephen, but was instead driven by the ill-will of a few who found Stephen’s words offensive to their conscience. They lashed out at the messenger because they hated and resisted the message.
May I ask… As a Christian what type of relationship do you expect to have with the lost world around you? Do you expect the world to be as tolerant of your beliefs as they want you to be of theirs? Really… What are your expectations?
You should remember that Stephen wasn’t doing anything wrong. He believed in Jesus, was a faithful churchgoer, even volunteered. We’re given no indication Stephen went out proselytizing, but that he simply enjoyed sharing his faith with those who were interested.
And while his speech was meek and his life above reproach, because he spoke the truth Stephen immediately became polarizing (some accepted while others resisted).
Please understand the reason people find the truth so offensive is that truth is by its very nature exclusive and divisive. By definition, truth distinguishes between what is right from what is wrong. And since truth is the one position that refuses to accept all other positions as being equal, the speaker of truth is often branded offensive and not tolerated.
Stephen’s story illustrates an important reality… How people respond to truth directly determines how they’ll respond to the person speaking the truth. It’s the general lesson presented in the way the world treated Jesus. If a person accepts truth, they’ll accept the truth speaker; but if a person rejects truth, every Christian should go ahead and expect that person to not only reject but actively resist you.
It is a simple fact that since we live in a culture that is growing increasingly intolerant of fundamental, Christian truths, we live in a culture growing increasingly intolerant of the Christians who speak those truths. Today, even ESPN will brand, smear, and ostracize from society any person who takes a position other than a full celebration of homosexuality as being a bigoted homophobe unfit to have a voice in the public square.
Understand… Stephen’s only crime was that he refused to leave his beliefs at church. Though Stephen would lose his life because he spoke words of truth to a group of people who didn’t want to hear them, we would be wise to remember what Jesus Himself warned in John 15:20, “Remember the word that I said to you, 'A servant is not greater than his master.' If they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you.” Stephen had counted the cost!
The third and final thing you should note from Stephen’s example is that a Christian’s commission is to simply be a witness by shining the Light into the world.
Ultimately, this mob would bring Stephen before the Sanhedrin, and while standing there hearing these false accusations one of the most peculiar things in the Bible occurs…
Luke tells us as Stephen faced these men his face looked like “the face of an angel.” Now because no one in that room had ever seen an angel and Luke is getting his account from the eyewitnesses who were present that day, we understand this phrase is being used to describe his countenance and being heavenly in nature.
I love the reaction of the council… Luke says they “looked steadfastly” at Stephen. In the Greek, this word “steadfastly” means “they fasten their eyes upon.” What they were witnessing was so dramatic and strange these men simply sat there staring at Stephen.
Consider how this happened? As a faithful servant, Stephen had been a witness for Jesus in deed. As an evangelist, Stephen had been and will be a witness for Jesus in word. But, in this moment, something totally different is taking place… Stephen is being a witness by simply being!
Because we realize words and deed don’t always reveal the real heart of a person while the real heart of a person will always reveal itself through words and deeds, the idea of “being a witness” is not predicated upon what you do or say, but rather who you are! It’s a reality of life… Who you are will also determine what you do! Who Stephen was was clearly on display for all to see! He was a man filled with the Light of the World, the Spirit of God Himself.
So… Who are you? Are you more than this flesh and these bones? Are you more than your dysfunctional personality and genetic predispositions? In Galatians 2:20 Paul answers this question for himself by declaring, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me (by the indwelling Spirit of God); and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.”
Admittedly, this idea of “Christ living in me” seems strange. This is why, when teaching on this concept, Jesus uses an illustration everyone could understand… Light! In John 8:12, Jesus not only defined Himself as the “Light of the world,” but He said the person “who follows Him would not walk in darkness, but have the light of life.”
With this in mind, we understand that upon salvation and regeneration that dark void of the human soul left deadened by sin is brought to glorious life by the “Light of God.” As Paul would state in Ephesians 2:4-5, “Because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ…”
Because we have been filled with this Light, as followers of Jesus we are not only “light bears,” but we’re now responsible to “shine this light” into the world. In Matthew 5:16 Jesus commanded those who “have the light of life” to “let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.”
This is where this strange detail about Stephen proves helpful… Though what is clearly happening to him was some type of supernatural occurrence, don’t overlook the obvious lesson… Stephen was doing nothing to manufacture this heavenly countenance. Stephen was being a witness because the “Light of the world” came shining through for all to see. All Stephen had to do was sit there and allow God to do the rest.
Though we have all been given the commission to go into the world as witnesses of the resurrected Jesus, understand this should not be all that cumbersome. As a “light-bearer” our job is not to “shine the light,” but to simply “let our light shine.”
This is what’s so challenging about this story… Since Stephen’s experience began and developed no different than yours, there’s no reason God can’t also work through your life in an equally powerful and dramatic way. This is why there is so much we can learn through the example Stephen established. He demonstrates the Fingerprints of Faithfulness.
If you want to hear as Stephen “well done good and faithful servant” - If upon death you want to look up to heaven and see “Jesus standing at the right hand of God” - You would be wise to immolate this example set by the most relatable of characters.
Stephen made the decision to follow Jesus - no doubt counting the costs! Following his conversion, he laid for himself a solid spiritual foundation by both faithfully attending and contributing to a local church. Stephen trusted God with his future by simply remaining faithful with whatever task God placed before him.
Beyond this… Stephen had a heart for the lost and was not afraid to speak truth outside the walls of the church. When it was all said and done Stephen proved to be a perfect witness by the way he lived, the way he served, the words he spoke, but mainly by the Light he showed!
Please understand… There is a danger in being faithful. Stephen’s faithfulness led him into the darkest situation of his life (one where he found himself being lied about, slandered against, falsely accused, sitting before a hostile court, and ultimately stoned to death); and yet, you should also realize his simple faithfulness afforded him the greatest opportunity to shine the brightest.
Luke 11:33, “No one, when he has lit a lamp, puts it in a secret place or under a basket, but on a lampstand, that those who come in may see the light.”
This morning may we all consider… What type of Christian do you want to be? I don’t know about you, but I want to be a man like Stephen - a man who was like Jesus!
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