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The Martyr of Stephen

Through the summer we’ve been working our way through the book of Acts – although recently, we’ve had some special speakers bring the Sunday morning message, and so it’s been a couple weeks since since we last left off.

But today we are getting back to Acts and we’re picking up the story in Acts chapter 6. We started this chapter three weeks ago and at that time, we looked at one of the first major leadership challenges faced by the church. If you were with us then, you’ll recall that as the early church grew by leaps and bounds, the pressures and demands on the Apostles grew as well – threatening to distract and derail them from preaching the Gospel – which of course, was the one, most important thing they had to do!

So to deal with this, the Apostles called for a meeting of the entire church and through some God-given wisdom, suggested that they appoint seven men to be deacons – men who would serve the church in an administrative role so that the needs of the church would be met – freeing the apostles to spend their time preaching the Word of God.

Everyone in the church agreed that this was a great idea and so they selected seven men who were well-respected, full of the Holy Spirit, and full of wisdom – and they appointed them to serve the church.

One of these men was a man named Stephen and it’s around him that our story revolves today. Well, actually, that’s not entirely true. Even though Stephen is a main character – our story continues to revolve around Christ. Although this book is called the ‘Acts of the Apostles’ – every story centers on the person of Jesus Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit – and that’s exactly what we’re going to see today.

So if you have your Bibles, let’s turn to Acts chapter 6, starting today at verse 8.

8 Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, performed amazing miracles and signs among the people. 9 But one day some men from the Synagogue of Freed Slaves, as it was called, started to debate with him. They were Jews from Cyrene, Alexandria, Cilicia, and the province of Asia. 10 None of them could stand against the wisdom and the Spirit with which Stephen spoke.

Acts 6:8-10

Now it’s interesting – and I pointed this out briefly in the last message – that although Stephen was appointed to serve the church in an administrative role (specifically, to oversee the daily distribution of food to those in need), here we see him doing some amazing miracles among the people – and he was very actively engaged in sharing the message of Christ with non-believers. These are normally the things that we see the Apostles doing – but here we see Stephen doing them as well. And this is a great reminder that anyone and everyone can be used by God in some incredible ways. It doesn’t matter what your ‘official’ role or title is – if you’ve surrendered your life to God, God can do amazing things through you!

In this case, Stephen was doing miracles and sharing the Gospel with his fellow Jews. You’ll remember from our last message how there were two groups of Jews in Jerusalem at this time – there were Hebrew speaking Jews who where native-born Israelites (born & raised within the borders of Israel itself) – and there were Greek-speaking Jews who had been born and raised in other parts of the world, but who had now returned to live in Jerusalem.

Based on his Greek name, Stephen is very likely one of those Greek-speaking Jews who had come to live in Jerusalem – as were these other Jews who were debating with him. It’s even possible that Stephen was a member of the Synagogue of the Freed Slaves where he was debating with these other Jews.

This synagogue would have been one of the synagogues that had been started by Greek-speaking Jews who had at one time been slaves somewhere in the Roman Empire, but had since been freed and had come to Jerusalem. So maybe Stephen was part of that group? We don’t really know.

But what we do know, is that, like many Jews in Jerusalem, these men were not eager to embrace the message of the Gospel. And so as Stephen shared the Good News of Jesus Christ, these men began to debate with him – trying to argue against his claims that Jesus was the resurrected Son of God! But as we see in verse 10 – None of them could stand against the wisdom and the Spirit with which Stephen spoke.

And that is such a huge encouragement and reminder for us as we try to share the Gospel with the people around us!

It’s not our eloquent delivery or clever words that’s going to convince people to put their faith in Jesus Christ – but rather, it’s the wisdom of God and the power of the Holy Spirit that’s going to make the difference. 

I know many Christians are terrified at the thought to trying to share the Gospel with someone. What if we muddle our words or say the wrong thing? What if they ask us questions that we can’t answer? What if we end up looking like a fool and only reinforce their beliefs that we’re a religious nut job?

Well, if you can relate to that at all – this passage should be a great encouragement for you. First of all, I’ll remind you that it’s not really our job to worry about the results of our witnessing. That part is up to God. Our job is simply to be a faithful witness for Him. Now of course, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t prepare and do all that we can to present a full and accurate account of the Gospel. 1 Peter 3:15 tells us

“…You must worship Christ as Lord of your life. And if someone asks about your hope as a believer, always be ready to explain it. 16 But do this in a gentle and respectful way.” 1 Peter 3:15-16a

We do need to be prepared and be ready to explain our Hope in Christ in a clear and understandable way.  And of course, we also need to do this with gentleness and respect. But we don’t need to stress and worry about how our conversation will go or how the other person might respond. We can leave all that up to God. 

Jesus once told his disciples in Mark 13:9….

You will stand trial before governors and kings because you are my followers. But this will be your opportunity to tell them about me. 10 For the Good News must first be preached to all nations. 11 But when you are arrested and stand trial, don’t worry in advance about what to say. Just say what God tells you at that time, for it is not you who will be speaking, but the Holy Spirit.

Mark 13:9b-11

Isn’t that great? One of the main purposes for why the Holy Spirit comes to dwell within each one of us is to empower us to be his witness. (We read that in Acts 1:8)

That means, that when you have surrendered your life and your conversations to the leading of the Holy Spirit, He will do the speaking through you. He will give you just the right words at just the right time – and that’s what will give your conversations power and impact. Our job is simply to enter into those conversations and trust that God will speak through us.

And I think that’s exactly what we see in Stephen. You’ll remember from verse 5 that Stephen was described as…

…a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit… Acts 6:5

…a man full of God’s grace and power… Acts 6:8

He had fully surrendered his whole life to God. It was no longer Stephen living his life, but Christ living in hIm. – And so because Stephen had so yielded his life and his thoughts and his conversations to the Holy Spirit, we see in verse ten….

10 None of them could stand against the wisdom and the Spirit with which Stephen spoke. Acts 6:10

And so, being unable to refute his bold declarations that Jesus was the risen Messiah – but also being unwilling to accept Christ as their own Lord and Saviour – the Jews from the Synagogue of the Freed Men had to do something to change the equation. And so they hatched a plan. Verse 11.

11 So they persuaded some men to lie about Stephen, saying, “We heard him blaspheme Moses, and even God.” 12 This roused the people, the elders, and the teachers of religious law. So they arrested Stephen and brought him before the high council.

13 The lying witnesses said, “This man is always speaking against the holy Temple and against the law of Moses. 14 We have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy the Temple and change the customs Moses handed down to us.”

15 At this point everyone in the high council stared at Stephen, because his face became as bright as an angel’s. 

Acts 6:11-15

Now this is an interesting verse. As Stephen is brought before the high council – facing some very serious charges – the very same charges that had earlier sent Jesus to the cross…. As Stephen faced these charges, verse 15 tells us that his face became as bright as an angel’s.

Of course, we don’t know if this is a literal brightness where light radiated from his face (like when Moses had to veil his face after meeting with God) or if this was a more figurative brightness where it’s just a change in countenance (like when Jonathan ate some honey while chasing down the Philistines and the Bible says “his eyes brightened…”) 

But either way, it became very clear to everyone that something very unusual was going on with Stephen. For a guy on trial for blaspheme – facing the very real possibility of death – you’d expect to see a face that showed fear or anger or at the very least, stress or worry. But instead, Stephen’s face was like that of an angel’s face – the face of someone who was standing in the presence of God. A face of joy and confidence – a face that showed nothing but perfect peace. 

No wonder everyone was starring at him!

And it’s at this point that Stephen is given a chance to respond to his accusers. Verse 1 of chapter seven now says:

Then the high priest asked Stephen, “Are these accusations true?”

Acts 7:1

Stephen is given an opportunity to plead his case – and what follows is the longest sermon recorded in the book of Acts! Stephen basically goes through the history of Israel – using all the familiar Old Testament stories to make three main points.

And this morning, I’m not going to spend a great deal of time looking at the details of this sermon, (we just don’t have the time for that) but I do want to read through it and as we do, I want you look for his three main points. Its a longer passage – about 50+ verses, but I want you to look for these three themes:

#1. God’s Abundant Grace for Undeserving People

#2. People’s Rebellious Tendency to Reject God’s Grace

#3. People Pursue Religion – God Pursues Relationships

And I know that’s a lot of stuff to try to catch in one reading, but try to look for at least one of those themes as we read through… Verse 2 says this:

2 This was Stephen’s reply: “Brothers and fathers, listen to me. Our glorious God appeared to our ancestor Abraham in Mesopotamia before he settled in Haran. 3 God told him, ‘Leave your native land and your relatives, and come into the land that I will show you.’ 4 So Abraham left the land of the Chaldeans and lived in Haran until his father died. Then God brought him here to the land where you now live.

5 “But God gave him no inheritance here, not even one square foot of land. God did promise, however, that eventually the whole land would belong to Abraham and his descendants—even though he had no children yet. 6 God also told him that his descendants would live in a foreign land, where they would be oppressed as slaves for 400 years. 7 ‘But I will punish the nation that enslaves them,’ God said, ‘and in the end they will come out and worship me here in this place.’

8 “God also gave Abraham the covenant of circumcision at that time. So when Abraham became the father of Isaac, he circumcised him on the eighth day. And the practice was continued when Isaac became the father of Jacob, and when Jacob became the father of the twelve patriarchs of the Israelite nation.

9 “These patriarchs were jealous of their brother Joseph, and they sold him to be a slave in Egypt. But God was with him 10 and rescued him from all his troubles. And God gave him favor before Pharaoh, king of Egypt. God also gave Joseph unusual wisdom, so that Pharaoh appointed him governor over all of Egypt and put him in charge of the palace.

11 “But a famine came upon Egypt and Canaan. There was great misery, and our ancestors ran out of food. 12 Jacob heard that there was still grain in Egypt, so he sent his sons—our ancestors—to buy some. 13 The second time they went, Joseph revealed his identity to his brothers, and they were introduced to Pharaoh. 14 Then Joseph sent for his father, Jacob, and all his relatives to come to Egypt, seventy-five persons in all. 15 So Jacob went to Egypt. He died there, as did our ancestors. 16 Their bodies were taken to Shechem and buried in the tomb Abraham had bought for a certain price from Hamor’s sons in Shechem.

17 “As the time drew near when God would fulfill his promise to Abraham, the number of our people in Egypt greatly increased. 18 But then a new king came to the throne of Egypt who knew nothing about Joseph. 19 This king exploited our people and oppressed them, forcing parents to abandon their newborn babies so they would die.

20 “At that time Moses was born—a beautiful child in God’s eyes. His parents cared for him at home for three months. 21 When they had to abandon him, Pharaoh’s daughter adopted him and raised him as her own son. 22 Moses was taught all the wisdom of the Egyptians, and he was powerful in both speech and action.

23 “One day when Moses was forty years old, he decided to visit his relatives, the people of Israel. 24 He saw an Egyptian mistreating an Israelite. So Moses came to the man’s defense and avenged him, killing the Egyptian. 25 Moses assumed his fellow Israelites would realize that God had sent him to rescue them, but they didn’t.

26 “The next day he visited them again and saw two men of Israel fighting. He tried to be a peacemaker. ‘Men,’ he said, ‘you are brothers. Why are you fighting each other?’

27 “But the man in the wrong pushed Moses aside. ‘Who made you a ruler and judge over us?’ he asked. 28 ‘Are you going to kill me as you killed that Egyptian yesterday?’ 29 When Moses heard that, he fled the country and lived as a foreigner in the land of Midian. There his two sons were born.

30 “Forty years later, in the desert near Mount Sinai, an angel appeared to Moses in the flame of a burning bush. 31 When Moses saw it, he was amazed at the sight. As he went to take a closer look, the voice of the Lord called out to him, 32 ‘I am the God of your ancestors—the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.’ Moses shook with terror and did not dare to look.

33 “Then the Lord said to him, ‘Take off your sandals, for you are standing on holy ground. 34 I have certainly seen the oppression of my people in Egypt. I have heard their groans and have come down to rescue them. Now go, for I am sending you back to Egypt.’

35 “So God sent back the same man his people had previously rejected when they demanded, ‘Who made you a ruler and judge over us?’ Through the angel who appeared to him in the burning bush, God sent Moses to be their ruler and savior. 36 And by means of many wonders and miraculous signs, he led them out of Egypt, through the Red Sea, and through the wilderness for forty years.

37 “Moses himself told the people of Israel, ‘God will raise up for you a Prophet like me from among your own people.’ 38 Moses was with our ancestors, the assembly of God’s people in the wilderness, when the angel spoke to him at Mount Sinai. And there Moses received life-giving words to pass on to us.

39 “But our ancestors refused to listen to Moses. They rejected him and wanted to return to Egypt. 40 They told Aaron, ‘Make us some gods who can lead us, for we don’t know what has become of this Moses, who brought us out of Egypt.’ 

41 So they made an idol shaped like a calf, and they sacrificed to it and celebrated over this thing they had made. 42 Then God turned away from them and abandoned them to serve the stars of heaven as their gods! In the book of the prophets it is written,

‘Was it to me you were bringing sacrifices and offerings
during those forty years in the wilderness, Israel?

43 No, you carried your pagan gods—
the shrine of Molech,
the star of your god Rephan,
and the images you made to worship them.
So I will send you into exile
as far away as Babylon.’

44 “Our ancestors carried the Tabernacle with them through the wilderness. It was constructed according to the plan God had shown to Moses. 45 Years later, when Joshua led our ancestors in battle against the nations that God drove out of this land, the Tabernacle was taken with them into their new territory. And it stayed there until the time of King David.

46 “David found favor with God and asked for the privilege of building a permanent Temple for the God of Jacob. 47 But it was Solomon who actually built it. 48 However, the Most High doesn’t live in temples made by human hands. As the prophet says,

49 ‘Heaven is my throne,
and the earth is my footstool.
Could you build me a temple as good as that?’
asks the Lord.
‘Could you build me such a resting place?

50     Didn’t my hands make both heaven and earth?’

Acts 7:2-50

And I’ll stop here before we read Stephen’s final conclusion to all this. But as we read, did you notice any of those three themes? 

Did you see:

#1. God’s Abundant Grace for Undeserving People

#2. People’s Rebellious Tendency to Reject God’s Grace

#3. People Pursue Religion – God Pursues Relationships

I wish we had more time in this message to explore those themes a bit more, but perhaps that can be your homework assignment this week: Go through this passage we just read, look for those themes, and then see if you can see those things at play in your own life?

  • Do you see God’s Abundant Grace for undeserving people?
  • Do you see your own rebellious tendency to reject God’s grace?
  • Do you see how you tend to pursue religious activity – while God pursues you?

Some good food for thought. 

Well, after this condensed History lesson, Stephen concludes his sermon with a fiery accusation. He’s supposed to be the one on trial, but it’s his accusers that are pronounced guilty! Stephen says in verse 51:

51 “You stubborn people! You are heathen at heart and deaf to the truth. Must you forever resist the Holy Spirit? That’s what your ancestors did, and so do you! 52 Name one prophet your ancestors didn’t persecute! They even killed the ones who predicted the coming of the Righteous One—the Messiah whom you betrayed and murdered. 53 You deliberately disobeyed God’s law, even though you received it from the hands of angels.”

Acts 7:2-53

And I should point out – that this is now the third time this high council has been confronted with their own guilt regarding the crucifixion of Jesus. You’ll recall how Peter & John had first indicted them of this crime after healing the lame man in the temple. Peter repeated the charge after being arrested, freed by the angel, and then arrested again. And now Stephen for the third time declares them guilty of murdering the Messiah. Three times they had been given an opportunity to repent – but three times, they hardened their heart and refused to listen. In fact, at this point now, instead of repenting, we’ll see that they have choose to add to their guilt. Look at verse 54.

54 The Jewish leaders were infuriated by Stephen’s accusation, and they shook their fists at him in rage. 55 But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed steadily into heaven and saw the glory of God, and he saw Jesus standing in the place of honor at God’s right hand. 56 And he told them, “Look, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing in the place of honor at God’s right hand!”

57 Then they put their hands over their ears and began shouting. They rushed at him 58 and dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. His accusers took off their coats and laid them at the feet of a young man named Saul.

59 As they stoned him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 He fell to his knees, shouting, “Lord, don’t charge them with this sin!” And with that, he died.

Acts 7:54-60

The death of Stephen would mark a dramatic change in the life of the church. In the next chapter we’re going to read how this event began a great persecution against the church – spearheaded by a zealous Pharisee named Saul.

But we’ll get more into that in our next message. For today, I just want to conclude with the three themes we saw in Stephen’s sermon as they apply to the high council.

As I mentioned, this was now the third opportunity they had to repent of their sin and turn to God. For those who had murdered the Son of God, God had given them abundant, abundant Grace. But yet, their rebellious hearts rejected that grace time and time again. The high council would much rather fulfill all their religious obligations – offering sacrifices at the temple, observing Sabbaths and special rituals, holding tightly to the law of Moses – rather than enter into a personal relationship with the God of heaven. I guess carrying out all those religious requirements was much easier than actually surrendering their life to God.

And maybe that’s the case for you? Have you chosen just to add a few religious activities to your life, rather than enter into a personal relationship with God? Is it easier to run through your checklist of good deeds – rather than truly surrender your whole life to Him?

It may be easier, but it’s completely ineffective! Isaiah reminds us in Isaiah 64:6…

We are all infected and impure with sin.
When we display our righteous deeds,
they are nothing but filthy rags.
Like autumn leaves, we wither and fall,
and our sins sweep us away like the wind.

Isaiah 64:6

No amount of good deeds or religious activity can make us right with God! Salvation is found only through faith in Jesus Christ. We need to believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God – that he died on a cross for our sin, and rose again from the grave so that we can have forgiveness and life! He is today – as Stephen declared – standing in the place of honour at God’s right hand.

Even though we are completely undeserving, God has offered us – each one of us – abundant, abundant grace! The question is: Will you accept His grace today?

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