Stephen The Witness For Christ
1. Today I would like for us to take particular notice of the character Stephen. Both chapters six and seven are written about him. When we look at the end of chapter seven, we see that he was murdered by a lynch mob. He was the first martyr. What should we take in from his life and death which we are told about in the Bible?
The Problem Of The Daily Distribution
2. First off, let's look at the setting in which he appears. Acts chapter six tells about the troubles that arose in the early church. It arose between the two groups that existed within Jewish society. The two groups were the Jews who spoke Hebrew and the Jews who spoke Greek. The former were called Hebrews and were mainly Jews from Palestine. The latter were called Hellenists and were Jews that had been born and raised in the lands of the dispersion. The Hellenists, having lived exposed to the many different pagan cultures, were very different in both their ideals and their customs as compared to the Hebrews. There was a strained relationship that was deep between the two peoples because for the average person among them they would judge those different from them based on their own self standard and would look down on those different from them and be in the habit of rejecting them. This rift, unfortunately, showed itself in the church too. This was the catalyst in the unfairness during the assistance for the poor members in their needs for daily living. A complaint from the Hellenists came forth that the widows in their group were being looked down upon in the daily distribution.
3. Then the apostles called all the disciples together and made the following proposal, "We do not desire to put God's word in second place by serving tables. So, brothers, please choose seven men from among you of sound judgment filled with "the spirit" and wisdom. Entrust this work to them. We have decided to devote ourselves to the service of prayer and the word," (verses two through four). The body approved of this proposal. Then the text says that "they chose Stephen a man filled with faith and the Holy Spirit and others [named] Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas the convert from Antioch, and they had them stand before the apostles. The apostles placed hands on them and prayed," (verse five and six).
4. As we have here, this position that the church was in back then facing an all too familiar problem appeared all too frequently. The problem had to do with the assistance for daily living [program]. You might say the story was over money and food supplies. It had exceedingly mundane gritty stuff in it. But, they respond to it as a faith problem. The apostles said, "Choose seven men from among you." Why was it seven men? It is believed that this number probably came from a Jewish social tradition. But, if it was to solve a problem of unfairness, this might not seem a very wise proposal according to common sense. Because by choosing seven men, there would surely be either more Hebrews or more Helenists. If they were balancing things between the two peoples, shouldn't they improve the organization by an equal number of representatives appearing in each group?
5. In short, the idea never entered into the apostles' heads of any political resolution based on an equal number of representation. That's because this was supposed to be resolved as a faith problem. It is a problem that the church, which is under the authority of Christ, ought to solve by inquiring as to the will of Christ. So, the church was required to choose "men with good judgment filled with 'the spirit' and wisdom" and not men of influence and eloquence, who could work for the profit of one's own group. They had to choose men who could make decisions while under the authority of Christ.
6. Eventually then, what kind of men were chosen? The names which are given in verse five all have features of Greek names. So, scholars say unanimously that it was probably all Helenist members who were chosen here. From a common sense view that might not be possible at all. But, that was the decision which the church handed down. They had certainly chosen "men filled with faith and the Holy Spirit" and sought a solution for this simple every day kind of problem based on faith and the Holy Spirit.
The Martyrdom Of Stephen
7. Well, one of the men thus chosen was Stephen. The introduction about him was given in particular as "Stephen filled with faith and the Holy Spirit." When we read from chapter six and verse eight on, we see that just like the apostles did, Stephen also did powerful deeds and gave witness to Christ. Since he was an Helenist, it would seem that he was active mainly in meeting places and synagogues where Helenists assembled. The text reads in verse nine that "Certain ones of those who belonged to 'The Synagogue Of The Liberated Slaves' and certain ones from the provinces of Cilicia and Asia had risen up and debated with Stephen." When he gave an explanation of the Bible in a synagogue, a debate would pop up each time.
8. Soon after the Jewish leaders knew that they would not defeat Stephen in the debates, they plotted to stop his mouth shut some other way. They stirred up the public, the elders and the scribes, and pouncing on Stephen to arrest him, they hauled him off to the high court. Then they put up false witnesses and made them give charges against Stephen as follows: "This man spoke ill of the holy place (that is the temple) and of the law, and won't stop for nothing. We have heard him say this, 'Jesus the Nazarene will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses passed on to us.'" Thus, Stephen came to be condemned in the high court just like the apostles had been before him.
9. Well, here we need to take notice that the situation that Stephen is put into is totally different from when Peter and John underwent their investigation in chapter four. When the apostles were then arrested, at least the public was on their side. So the high priests and their peers of the Saddokite group could not do anything violent. However, this time around, the public was stirred up and they made an enemy out of them. And they even skillfully made the accusation that "this man is speaking ill of the temple and the law." To speak ill of the temple would stir up the anger of the Saddokites who were of the priestly class. The charge of speaking ill of the law could not be overlooked by the Pharisees either. From every degree you looked, the circumstances in which they could make Stephen into a dead man were coming into full circle.
10. I'd say perhaps even Stephen himself had known all along that he was put into a dangerous situation. He must have had a presentiment that he wouldn't go back on living with the others. In fact, he was slaughtered by the penalty of stoning. But, in that setting, we find some surprising words. It goes like this at the end of chapter six, "Everyone who was sitting on the seats of the high court had observed Stephen and his face looked just like the face of an angel," (verse fifteen). When the people turned their faces so filled with hatred and intent to kill, his facial expression was filled with such a heavenly peace and compassion that could only be expressed as "angelic." Stephen did not address those who were about to convict him for a crime as though facing an enemy. The first thing that came out of his mouth was the words "O all of you, my brothers and my fathers, please listen to me," (7:2).
11. With this we recall again the expression "Stephen, filled with faith and the Holy Spirit." The Bible is not merely commending the height of his personal virtue. This came from the working of the Holy Spirit, who controlled him and allowed him to live under the authority of Christ. This truth came out quite clearly in the fateful scene in which he was robbed of his life in such a brutal manner. Please look at chapter seven and verse fifty-four.
"The people heard this and became gruesomely angry and gnashed their teeth at Stephen. Stephen was filled with the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven, and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing to the right of God, and he said, 'Heaven is opened, the son of God standing to the right of God is visible.' The people shouting with loud voices plugged their ears with their hands, and aiming at Stephen they rushed him all together, and dragged him outside the city and began to throw stones at him. The witnesses placed at the feet of the young Saul the articles he was wearing. While the people were casting stones, Stephen called out to the Lord, 'O Jesus, please receive my spirit.' After that, he kneeled and cried out loud, 'Lord, please do not burden them with this sin.' After saying that, Stephen went to sleep," (Acts 7:54-60).
13. Here the main thing is that Stephen had said in particular that "Heaven is opened, the son of God standing to the right of God is visible." The phrase "to the right of God" does not simply mean a place. In a kingdom when it says a certain person sits on the seat to the right of the king, it means he is a person to whom all authority has been entrusted by the king. Likewise, in saying that Christ is on the right of God it means that he rules as the one entrusted with all the authority of God the Father. The risen Christ said to his disciples, "I have been conferred with all power over heaven and earth," (Matthew 28:18).
14. When they were actually trying to kill Stephen, the thing Stephen put his eyes on was the authority of Christ, His rule over it all. As seen by the eyes of humans, it looked like human power was in control. It was human violence. it was hatred and animosity. What we see in this biblical passage is the figure of powerful persons controlling powerless persons and their trying to wipe those out under that control. But, within that reality Stephen, filled with the Holy Spirit, was looking at the higher reality of Christ's rule.
15. He was murdered by the lynch mob. But, his life was not "robbed." That's because the eternal life given to him was under the rule of Christ. As a result, Stephen cried, "O Lord, please receive my spirit." Then, just as Christ once did, he died all the while as he interceded on behalf of the people. It was the final moments of a Spirit filled man.
16. However, at this point on purpose let's decide not to emphasize the heroic death of Stephen. We mustn't forget that he was originally chosen to resolve a very simple ordinary problem. The small every day things and the last great things in life are on the same plane. As a Spirit filled person to care for the small ordinary matters of life directly has to do with completing out our lifes while pointing to Christ with peace and joy as a Christ filled person.