April 19, 2009
We first learn of Stephen in Acts 6, as the church in Jerusalem is faced with a controversy. There were two groups of believers in the Jerusalem church -- those who were Hebrew believers, the physical descendants of Abraham, and the Hellenists, who were Greeks who had converted to Judaism. The Hellenists were upset because they felt that their widows were being neglected. The church in Jerusalem had pooled their resources so that they could take care of everyone who was in need, and the Hellenists alleged that their widows weren't getting the same help as the Hebrew widows. This became a serious problem.
Most problems you run into in church eventually become serious problems, don't they? Even trivial things can be blown out of proportion; the smallest misunderstandings can quickly become the reason that a church splits in two. The apostles had never seen a church split before -- it just hadn't happened. But they knew that they had to stop it before it caused the work of the Lord to grind to a halt. So they acted.
The chose men to help meet the needs of the people. These were the first deacons. They were (6:3) "men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom." So there are some things we know of Stephen right there.
FIRST: He was a man of good reputation. "Of good report" -- people knew him, and couldn't find anything bad to say about him. Ironic then that very quickly people would find plenty to say about him -- enough for him to be killed.
SECOND: He was a man who was full of the Holy Spirit. Not that these seven men were the only people who were filled by the Holy Spirit -- we know that the Holy Spirit dwells in us when we trust Christ as our savior. Stephen was a man who was controlled by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit was evident in everything he did.
THIRD: He was a man who had wisdom. Not just that he was an intelligent man, though from his sermon that we'll look at in a minute it's clear that he was educated. Stephen was a wise man, someone with discernment. Someone you could trust to manage the money, and the food. Someone everyone agreed would be fair in distributing what the church was giving out to those in need.
So how then did Stephen end up on trial? This is obviously a man who was respected and well liked in the community -- he'd probably have been elected mayor of Jerusalem if not for one thing -- his faith. When he is accused, it is for blasphemy. 6:13-14 "And set up false witnesses, which 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."
He was doing what Christ had commanded us all to do, to go, and teach, and make disciples, and baptize. And people didn't like that at all, so they took him before the Sanhedrin for trail. And the things he was teaching went directly against everything the Sanhedrin stood for. Of course, he was just repeating what Christ Himself said in John ch. 4 and Mark ch. 13. He was pointing them to the ultimate culmination of the law, the reason that the Law had been given in the first place -- to show mankind our need for a savior. Stephen was faithfully pointing people to that savior, and they didn't like it at all.
Now, when faced with that situation, how do we react? "Well, if people won't listen to you, then maybe you need to change your approach. We can't go around offending people, after all. So maybe we should just leave them alone -- after all, who are we to say that they're wrong and we're right? Live and let live, that's what I say." And we go on our way, proud of how tolerant we are.
How did Stephen react? He was asked a simple question -- "Are these things so?" And the charges against him were false, really -- he was accused of blasphemy, and he never blasphemed God. He could have just said "No, these things are not true. I do no blaspheme God. I worship Him." And he would have been punished, but most likely not killed.
But Stephen didn't do that. And this is where we see that Stephen was a Baptist, because he took one simple Yes or No question and preached a sermon on it.
Notice first how polite he was. He didn't call people names, he didn't insult anyone -- "Men and brothers," he starts out. He shows that he respects the Old Testament by talking about the history of the Jews, and how God was always with them. Stephen approaches the entire New Testament from a prophetic point of view -- that is, he viewed the entire history of the Hebrews as a foreshadowing of what God was going to do in the future, as well as a record of what God did in the past. And I'm sure he had his audience with him, ready to acquit him, until verse 51.
"You stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears! You always resist the Holy Spirit; as your fathers did, so do you. Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who foretold the coming of the Just One, of whom you now have become the betrayers and murderers, who have received the law by the direction of angels and have not kept it."
He connects them with their idolatrous forebearers. He shows them that just as Israel and Judah had disobeyed God, and persecuted and killed those who spoke for Him, so had they persecuted and killed those God had sent to them to speak to them of Jesus. His entire sermon, of which we probably only have the highlights, showed them from the Old Testament exactly what God was doing, and Stephen pointed them straight to Jesus.
He could have watered down the message God gave him. He could have backpedaled a bit, maybe not mentioned Jesus (that was still a sore subject with the Sanhedrin -- it had only been a few years since they'd executed Jesus, after all). He could have done a TV friendly sermon about living your best life now, or about getting everything you've ever wanted from God, and being rich and powerful -- that would have gone over well with the Sanhedrin -- they were all about the money and the power by this time in history. He could have had the entire council show up at First Baptist Jerusalem for Sunday services. But he told them the truth. He told them what God told him to tell them.
And so they killed him. He really didn't leave them any options -- they had no out after he'd spoken what they thought of as blasphemy right in their presence. So they killed him -- and they weren't allowed to do that under Roman law! They had to take Jesus to the Romans because they weren't allowed to administer capital punishment -- that was one right the Romans kept for themselves, and were very strict about. They did everything in accordance to Jewish law, and killed Stephen.
Stephen took what he was given and used it for God's glory. He was given a lose-lose situation; he could either water down his teaching and go free, or stand up for the cause of Christ and be killed. And he realized that it was much better for God to get the glory than for him to keep his life, knowing that he hadn't been faithful to God.
That's our example.
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