Acts 6:1 – 7:60
ste’-vn (Stephanos, “crown” (Acts 6:5-8:12)):
1. His Personal Antecedents
2. His Character and Activity
3. His Teaching
4. His Arraignment before the Sanhedrin
5. His Defence before the Sanhedrin
(1) Personal Defence
(2) Defense of His Teaching
6. Martyrdom of Stephen
Known best as the proto-martyr of the Christian church, introducing the heroic period of persecutions. He deserves as well to be called the first great apologist for Christianity, since it was this that brought on his death as a martyr (circa 36 or 37 AD).
1. His Personal Antecedents:
As his name and his relations in the church at Jerusalem seem to imply (Acts 6:3), he was a Hellenist, i.e. a Greek-speaking Jew. Thus he belonged to that class of Jews usually residing outside of Palestine who, though distinguished from the orthodox Palestinian Jew by a broader outlook on life due to a more liberal education, were Jews none the less, the original Jewish element predominating in their character, and who might be true Israelites indeed, as Stephen was. Of his conversion to Christianity we know nothing, though there is a tradition that he was among the Seventy. As Stephen by his life and work marks a period of transition in the development of the early Christian church, so his name is connected with an important new departure within the organization of the church itself, namely, the institution of the office of the Seven (Acts 6:1), who were entrusted with the administration of the work of relief in the church at Jerusalem–the foundation of the diaconate (Iren., Haer., i.26; Cyprian, Epist., iii.3). Of the seven men, all Hellenists, elected to this office at the occasion of a grievance of the Hellenistic Christians in the Jerusalem church against the Hebrew Christians, to the effect that in the distribution of alms their widows were being discriminated against, Stephen, who heads the list, is by far the most distinguished.
2. His Character and Activity:
Stephen more than met the requirements of the office to which he was elected (Acts 6:3); the record characterizes him as “a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 6:5), i.e. of an enthusiastic faith and of a deep spirituality, and his activity was not restricted to the functions of his office; in fact while nothing is said of the manner in which he fulfilled the duties of his office, though without doubt he fulfilled them faithfully, the record makes it very clear that the importance of Stephen lay in his activity as a preacher, a witness for Christ; it is this activity which has given him the place he holds in history (Acts 22:20). In itself that is not surprising, for in the early Christian church every Christian was at once a witness for Christ, and lay-preaching was common. The Seven from the first were occupied with essentially spiritual work, as also the later diaconate was engaged in something far different from mere charity organization. But Stephen was especially qualified for this high work, having been endued by the Holy Spirit with apostolical gifts, not only that of preaching, but also that of working miracles (Acts 6:8). In his freer views of Jewish law and customs, due to his deeper conception and better understanding of the essence of Christianity, he even excelled the apostles.
3. His Teaching:
He burst the bonds of Judaism, by which the other apostles were still bound, by teaching that the temple and the Law of Moses were evanescent and that Christianity was destined to supersede Judaism (Acts 6:14). These freer views of Stephen, though possibly attributable to his Hellenic culture, were certainly not of Hellenistic origin, for just their promulgation is what brought him into controversy with the Hellenistic synagogues of Jerusalem. Though the Hellenist dispensed himself from keeping all of the Pharisaic additions to the Law, he always regarded the Law of Moses and the temple at Jerusalem as highly as the Palestinian Jew. Even Philo characterizes the Law of Moses in distinction from the laws of other nations, as stedfast, immovable and unchangeable, placing it on a level with the laws of Nature. The true source of Stephen’s freer views of the Mosaic Law and the temple was Christ’s own teachings, Stephen showing a wonderfully ripened understanding of them, paralleled only by that of Paul some time later. Christ’s words regarding the temple (John 4:20-24; Mark 13:2) not only led Stephen to see that the true worship of God was not confined to the temple, but opened his eyes as to the purely formal character of this worship in that day, which, far from being true worship, had become a mere ceremonialism (Mark 7:6), and in the words of Christ (John 2:19) he saw an intimation of the new temple which was to take the place of the old. Thus also his conception of the transitory nature of the Mosaic Law may be traced to Christ’s teaching as to the Sabbath, the laws of purifying, the fulfillment of the Law and Jewish customs of the day (Matthew 5:20) and of a better righteousness than that of the Pharisees and scribes (Matthew 9:16). As Christ had been drawn into controversy with Pharisees and scribes on account of these freer views, and as His word about the temple was used to frame the accusation against Him in His trial, so also in the case of Stephen. He did not hesitate to preach his views, choosing the Hellenistic synagogues for this purpose, and soon became engaged in controversies there. But, as the record says, his opponents “were not able to withstand the wisdom,” i.e. better understanding, convincing knowledge, “and the Spirit,” i.e. the deep earnestness and spirituality, “by which he spake” so convincingly (Acts 6:10; Matthew 10:19,20). Seeing themselves beaten, they took recourse to the ignoble method of declaring him a blasphemer and a heretic, by using the same foul means that the enemies of Jesus had resorted to, by suborning false witnesses to the plot, by stirring up the people against him, by appealing to their Jewish prejudices and to the scribes and elders, members of the Sanhedrin, and thus eventually brought about his arraignment.
4. His Arraignment before the Sanhedrin:
The accusation which they brought against him, through the introduction of false witnesses, included a twofold charge, one against his person, a charge of blasphemous words against Moses which would make him also a blasphemer of God, and one against his teaching, charging him with revolutionary and radical statements concerning the temple and the Law. (compare Mark 14:58; 13:2; 15:29). “Customs of Moses” (Acts 6:14) were the institutions that distinguished the Jews and that were derived from Moses. By his reference to “this place” and “these customs” Stephen was understood to imply the destruction of the temple and the change of the Law, Christianity thus aiming not only at the overthrow of the Jews’ religion but the very termination of their national existence.
The charge against Stephen’s person was a baseless accusation. There was no blasphemy on the part of Stephen, save by perversion of his words. The charge against his teaching was both false and true. It was false as an implied insinuation that he impugned the divine origin and character of the temple and the Mosaic Law, but it was true as far as he conceived both to be only of a temporary nature and serving a merely provisional purpose, which, as we have seen, constituted the peculiarity of his teaching. As in the trial of Christ, the judge, Pontius Pilate, read his true verdict, “I find no guilt in him,” written on His countenance and whole bearing, thus here the record tells us that the judges of Stephen, “All that sat in the council …. saw his face as it had been the face of an angel” (Acts 6:15;2 Corinthians 3:18); as if in refutation of the charge made against him, Stephen receives the same mark of divine favor which had been granted to Moses. It is a significant fact that Stephen was not arraigned before the Sanhedrin as being a Nazarene though at bottom it was the real cause of his arraignment. Thus also his defense before the Sanhedrin, though the name of Jesus was not mentioned until the very last, was in reality a grand apology for Christ.
5. His Defense before the Sanhedrin:
While the assembly was overawed by the evidence of singular innocence and holiness written upon the countenance of Stephen (Acts 6:15), the question of the high priest “Are these things so?” broke in upon the silence. It drew forth from Stephen that masterful pleading which, so sublime in form and content and bare of all artificiality, belongs to the highest type of oratory, characterized by its deep, earnest, and genuine spirituality, the kind of oratory of which the great speeches of our own martyred Lincoln were models. It is not so much a plea in self defence as a grand apology for the cause which Stephen represents.
Beginning by mentioning “the God of glory” and ending with a vision of that glory itself, the speech is a wonderful apotheosis of the humble cause of the Nazarene, the enthusiastic tribute of its first great martyr delivered in the face of death. The contents of his speech are a recital of the most marked phases of Jewish history in the past, but as read from the point of view of its outworkings in the present–old facts interpreted by a spirit filled disciple of Christ. It is in reality a philosophy of Israel’s history and religion, and in so far it was a novum. Thus the new feature that it furnishes is its philosophy of this history which might be termed the Christian philosophy of Jewish history. In appealing to their reason he calls up picture after picture from Abraham to Moses; the speech exhibits vividly the continuity and the progress of the divine revelation which culminated in Jesus of Nazareth, the same thought as that expressed by Christ in Matthew 5:17 of the principal agreement between the Old Testament and the New Testament revelation.
The emotional appeal lies in the reverential and feeling manner in which he handles the history sacred to them all. The strong appeal to the will is made by holding up the figure of Moses type of the Law, in its vital significance, in such a way as passionately to apply it to the fundamental relation of divine plan and human conduct. Thus the aim of Stephen was to point out to his hearers the true meaning of Jewish history and Jewish Law in reference to the present, i.e. in such a way that they might better understand and judge the present and adjust their conduct to it accordingly. Their knowledge of Jewish history and Jewish religion as he would convey it to them would compel them to clear him of the accusation against him as blasphemer and false teacher.
In accordance with the accusation against him, his defense was a twofold one:
personal defense and defense of his teaching.
(1) Personal Defense
The charge of blasphemy against God and contempt of the Law is implicitly repudiated by the tenor of the whole speech. The courteous and at once endearing terms in Stephen’s address (Acts 7:2) to the council, and the terms “our fathers” and “our race” in Acts 7:2,19 by which he closely associates himself with his hearers, his declaration of the divine majesty of Yahweh with which the speech opens (7:2), of the providential leading of the patriarchs (7:8,10), his recognition of the Old Testament institutions as divinely decreed (7:8), his reference to the divine sanction of the Law and its condemnation of those who had not kept it (7:53), at the close of his speech, show clearly his reverence, not only for the past history of the Jewish race, but as well for its Sacred Writings and all of its religious institutions. It makes evident beyond doubt how not grounded the accusation of blasphemy against him was. Not to impiety or frivolity in Stephen, but to some other cause, must be due therefore the difference between him and his opponents. What it is Stephen himself shows un-mistakenly in the second part of his defense.
(2) Defence of His Teaching
The fundamental differences between Stephen and his opponents, as is evident from the whole tone and drift and purpose of his speech, lay in that he judged Old Testament history from the prophetical point of view, to which Jesus had also allied Himself, while his opponents represented the legalistic point of view, so characteristic of the Jewish thought of that day. The significance of this difference is borne out by the fact upon which Stephen’s refutation hinges, namely, the fact, proved by the history of the past, that the development of the divine revelation and the development of the Jewish nation, so far from combining, move in divergent lines, due to a disposition of obstinate disobedience on the part of their fathers, and that therefore not he but they were disobedient to the divine revelation. Thus in a masterful way Stephen converts the charge of Antinomianism and anti-Mosaism brought against him into a counter-charge of disobedience to the divine revelation, of which his hearers stood guilty in the present as their fathers had in the past. In this sense the speech of Stephen is a grand apology for the Christian cause which he represented, inasmuch as it shows clearly that the new religion was only the divinely-ordered development of the old, and not in opposition to it.
The main arguments of the speech may be summed up as follows:
(a) God’s self-manifestation to Israel in revealing His covenant and His will, so far from being bound to one sanctuary and conveyed to one single person (Moses), began long before Moses and long before there was a temple. Thus it was gradual, and as it had begun before Moses it was not completed by him, as is evident from his own words, “A prophet shall God raise up unto you from among your brethren, like unto me” (Acts 7:2-37).
(b) The Jews to whom these revelations were granted, so far from being thankful at all stages of their history, had been slow to believe and understand them because they “would not be obedient” (Acts 7:39,57). They resisted the purpose of God by obstinately and stiff-neckedly opposing those through whom God worked. Thus their fathers had turned away from Moses at the very moment when he was receiving God’s greatest revelation, and, instead of obeying the “living oracles” (7:38) he gave them, turned to idol-worship for which God punished them by the Babylonian captivity (7:39-43). They had killed the prophets who had protested against the dead ritualism of the temple-worship and raised their voice in behalf of a true spiritual worship as that of the tabernacle had been (7:44-50,52). This disposition of disobedience so characteristic of the race in its whole history, because, in spite of the divine revelation received, they remained unregenerate (7:51), reached its culmination in that awful crime of betrayal and murder committed by the present generation upon the “Righteous One” whose coming the prophets had predicted the rejection of Jesus of Nazareth, by which the Jews doomed not only their national existence, but also their temple-worship and the reign of the Law to destruction (7:52-6:14).
Though the name of Jesus was not uttered by Stephen in his speech and does not occur until in his dying prayer, his hearers could not fail to notice the hidden reference to Him throughout the entire speech and to draw parallels intended by Stephen:
As Joseph and Moses, types of the Messiah, had been rejected, scorned and ill-treated (Acts 7:9,27,39), before being raised to be ruler and deliverer, so Jesus had also been repulsed by them.
The climax of his speech is reached in Acts 7:51-53, when Stephen, breaking off the line of argument, suddenly in direct address turns upon his hearers, and, the accused becoming the accuser, charges them openly with the sin of resisting the Holy Spirit, with the murder of the prophets and the Righteous One, and with continual disobedience to the Law. These words which mark the climax, though probably not the close of the speech, pointed the moral in terms of the most cutting rebuke, and were at once prophetical as to the effect the speech would have upon his hearers and for him.
6. Martyrdom of Stephen:
Such arguing and directness as Stephen’s could have but one result. Prejudiced and enraged as they were, the unanswerable arguments of Stephen, based on their own Scriptures, made them mad with fury, and doubtless through their demonstrations they stopped the speech. But Stephen, ansported with enthusiasm and inspiration, was vouchsafed a vision of the “glory of God,” which he had mentioned in the beginning of his speech (Acts 7:2), and of Jesus, whose cause he had so gallantly defended (Acts 7:55). Stephen standing there, his gaze piercing into heaven, while time and human limitations seemed effaced for him, marks one of the most historic moments in the history of Israel, as his words constitute the most memorable testimony ever uttered in behalf of Christ:
“Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man”–the only place where this title is uttered by any other person than Jesus–“standing on the right hand of God” (Acts 7:56). Now the audience could restrain its rage no longer, and the catastrophe followed immediately. Contrary to Roman law and order they took Stephen, and without awaiting sentence against him, amid a tumultuous scene, stoned him to death, the punishment prescribed in Mosaic Law for a blasphemer (Deuteronomy 17:7; Leviticus 24:14-16). This recourse to lynch law may have been connived at by the Roman authorities, since the act was without political significance. It is noteworthy, however, that the Jewish legal forms were observed, as if to give to the violence the appearance of legality. Accordingly, Stephen was taken outside the city (Leviticus 24:14; compare Luke 4:29); the witnesses threw the first stone at him (compare Deuteronomy 17:7) after taking off their upper garments and laying them at the feet of a “young man named Saul” (Acts 7:58)–afterward Paul, now about 30 years old–who evidently had charge of the whole proceedings.
Stephen died as he had lived, a faithful witness to his Master whom he acknowledged as such amid the rain of stones hurled at him, loudly calling upon His name, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (Acts 7:59; compare Luke 23:46), and whose spirit he exemplified so nobly when, with a final effort, bending his knees, he “cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge” (Acts 7:60; compare Luke 23:34). “And when he had said this, he fell asleep” (Acts 7:60; compare 1 Corinthians 15).
The impression made by Stephen’s death was even greater than that made by his life. Though it marks the beginning of the first great persecution of Christians, the death of the first Christian martyr resulted in the greatest acquisition Christianity has probably ever made, the conversion of Saul of Tarsus. The vision of the risen and exalted Jesus vouchsafed to the dying Stephen presented Christianity to Saul of Tarsus in a new light, tending to remove what had been its greatest stumbling-block to him in the Crucified One. This revelation coupled with the splendid personality of Stephen, the testimony of his righteous life and the noble bravery of his sublime death, and above all his dying prayer, fell upon the honest soul of Saul with an irresistible force and inevitably brought on the Damascus event, as Augustine clearly recognized:
“Si Stephanus non orasset, ecclesia Paulum non habuisset.” Judged by his teaching, Stephen may be called the forerunner of Paul. He was one of the first to conceive of the fact that Christianity represented a new order of things and as such would inevitably supersede the old order. Thus his teachings forecast that greatest controversy of the first Christian century, the controversy between Judaism and Christianity, which reached its culmination-point in the Council of Jerusalem, resulting in the independence of the Christian church from the fetters of Judaistic legalism.
R. J. Knowling, “Acts” in Expositor’s Greek Testament., II (1900); Feine, PRE3, XIX (1907); Pahncke in Studien u. Krit. (1912), I.
S. D. Press
2.0 Stephen: The Man (Acts 6:8-15)
Today we will look at “Stephen, the Man” (6:8-15); next week we will study, “Stephen, the Message” (7:1-53); and then we will consider, “Stephen, the Martyr” (7:54-8:1a). Today, by studying “Stephen, the Man,” we learn that …
Godly character is the basis for courageous witness for Jesus Christ, no matter what the results.
I am not suggesting that a person should wait until he has developed mature character before he begins to bear witness for Christ. Often brand new believers are the best witnesses for Christ, in spite of their spiritual immaturity, assuming that they have truly repented of their sin. But I am saying that godly character gives the most solid foundation for powerful witness, especially when the witness is persecuted. God often uses the person’s godly character under fire to convict those to whom he is bearing verbal witness.
1. Stephen was a man of godly character.
We met Stephen in our last study, where he was picked as one of the seven men to help distribute food to the Hellenistic widows in a fair manner. We do not know what kind of a time gap exists between the commissioning of these seven prototype deacons and the incident described in our text. Perhaps Stephen had done well in this administrative job, so that he could delegate the daily details to someone else, freeing him up to preach the gospel. As we saw last week, not even the apostles could do both, so it is not likely that Stephen carried on both ministries at the same time. Five inner qualities and one outward quality show Stephen to be a man of godly character.
A. HIS GODLY CHARACTER SHOWS ITSELF IN FIVE INNER QUALITIES:
1) HE WAS FULL OF THE HOLY SPIRIT.
This was a requirement that the apostles laid down for the seven men who were to serve tables (6:3). They had to have a good reputation, specifically, of being full of the Holy Spirit. This did not refer to an ecstatic experience, but to a daily walk under the control of the Holy Spirit that had continued for a long enough time to produce the evident fruit of the Spirit.
This quality is implied of Stephen in 6:10, where it states that his opponents could not cope with the wisdom and Spirit with which he was speaking. It is debatable whether “spirit” refers to the Holy Spirit or to the powerful manner in which Stephen spoke. But even if it refers to the manner of Stephen’s speaking, the power behind it came from the Holy Spirit. As Jesus had told His disciples, when they would be delivered up before synagogues and rulers, the Holy Spirit would teach them in that very hour what they needed to say (Luke 12:12). Thus Stephen’s wisdom and spirit in arguing with these Hellenistic Jews came from his being full of the Holy Spirit. That Stephen was full of the Holy Spirit in his defense before the Sanhedrin is specifically stated in 7:55.
Biblically, the main evidence of being filled with the Spirit is the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23). Those qualities are not produced overnight or by an ecstatic experience, but over months and years of walking in the Spirit (Gal. 5:16). Being full of the Spirit does not imply sinless perfection. No one achieves that in this life. Even the most godly of saints have their areas of imperfection and weakness. Even after a lifetime of walking in the Spirit, a godly man or woman can fall into sin, even into serious sin (David is a solemn warning!).
The fullness of the Spirit is a matter of progressive maturity. A new believer may be as yielded to the Holy Spirit as he knows how to be, but he will not demonstrate the fullness of the Spirit in the same manner as a man who has walked with God for many years. The main thing is daily to walk in submission to and dependence on the Spirit of God. As we do that, He grows His fruit in our hearts and lives. He will give us the power to bear witness of Christ to those who are lost. Our godly character, as seen in the fruit of the Spirit, will back up our verbal witness. A person who claims to be a Christian, but whose character is ungodly, should keep quiet about being a Christian, because the enemy will use his inconsistent life to mock the name of Christ.
2) HE WAS FULL OF WISDOM.
This was the second requirement for the men who served tables (6:3). It is also seen in Stephen in 6:10. The Greek word for “wisdom” is used only four times in Acts, twice of Stephen (6:3, 10) and twice in his message before the Sanhedrin (7:10, 22). Proverbs 2:6 states, “For the Lord gives wisdom; from His mouth come knowledge and understanding.” Proverbs 9:10 says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” Thus wisdom comes from knowing God, and Scripture reveals His wisdom.
Wisdom comes from a Hebrew word meaning “skill.” It is used of the craftsmen who had the skill to make the tabernacle and the furniture that went in it (Exod. 36:1, 2). Thus it has the nuance of the skill to live a life that is truly beautiful. It refers to right conduct in obedience to God’s will, not just to mastering a body of knowledge. God’s wisdom is summed up in Jesus Christ and the cross. To those who are perishing, the cross is foolishness, but to those who have been called by God, Christ is both “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:18, 24). To be people full of wisdom, we must grow in our understanding of the cross of Christ, where human pride is humbled and God’s grace is exalted. Every system of salvation that mingles human good works with God’s grace nullifies the cross and is opposed to God’s wisdom. Faithful witnesses, like Stephen, will refute the wisdom of this world and will extol the wisdom of Christ and the cross.
3) HE WAS FULL OF FAITH.
Stephen is described in 6:5 as being full of faith, referring to his faith in God. Stephen’s sermon in chapter 7 shows that he believed in a sovereign God who called Abraham out of a pagan country and through His covenant dealings with Abraham and his descendants, brought Jesus the Righteous One to save His people, in spite of their history of rebellion. God is sovereign even in the matter of the cross of Christ (2:23; 4:27-28).
You can only be full of faith if you believe in a sovereign God who uses even the wicked deeds of people to accomplish His eternal purpose. If God’s predestination means, as many say, that God looked down through history and saw in advance who would believe in Him, and put them on His list of the elect, then man’s will, not God’s will, is the sovereign determiner of what happens. Can you imagine, God seeing that I would choose Him, so He says, “Well, good, that’s what I wanted anyway!” Or, when Israel stoned her prophets, God saying, “Well, I’d really rather they wouldn’t do such things, but I guess I’ll have to work it into My plan somehow!” How could we trust a God who did not work all things after the counsel of His will (Eph. 1:11)? When we join Stephen in understanding how God is sovereignly working our suffering and perhaps even our martyrdom into His plan, we will be full of faith.
4) HE WAS FULL OF GRACE.
The same thing is said of Jesus Christ, who was “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Jesus was God’s grace personified. With regard to Stephen, the phrase implies that he had a personal understanding and experience of God’s grace as revealed in the cross of Christ. He knew that salvation is not by our works of righteousness, but rather by the undeserved favor of God, shown to us while we were yet sinners (Rom. 5:8; Titus 3:5-6). “If it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace” (Rom. 11:6). Stephen’s Jewish opponents boasted in their observance of the law, although as we will see, they were blind to their own violation of it. But Stephen boasted in the grace of God, freely bestowed on undeserving sinners.
A person who understands and lives God’s grace as seen in the cross also becomes a person who shows grace to others. An inward experience of grace flows outward into a gracious spirit toward others. Stephen’s being full of grace means that he was a gracious man. He did not curse his persecutors as they threw stones to crush his bones, but rather blessed them by praying, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” (7:60). The most effective witnesses have a clear understanding of the gospel of God’s grace and they are gracious toward others, even to those who are rude, offensive, or do them harm.
5) HE WAS FULL OF POWER.
God gave Stephen the ability to perform “great wonders and signs among the people” (6:8). These works of power are not described so that readers would gawk; they are simply reported. Whether this power came upon him after the apostles laid hands on him or before, we are not told. Except for the 12 apostles, only Stephen, Philip (8:6-7), and Barnabas (15:12) in the early church are reported to have performed miracles. The tense of the verb (“was performing,” 6:8) indicates that Stephen was doing these miraculous works frequently.
As I said in an earlier message, God can do miracles any time He pleases, and we should not limit Him by our restrictive theology or little faith. But the biblical evidence is that gift of performing miracles regularly was limited to this transitional period for the purpose of confirming the testimony of the apostles (Heb. 2:3-4; 2 Cor. 12:12). As I also said, God’s mighty power is shown in our lives when we patiently and joyfully endure trials, not just when we are miraculously delivered from them (Col. 1:11-12). When unbelievers see us going through trials with joy and thanksgiving, it provides the platform for powerful verbal witness.
Thus Stephen’s inner qualities, being full of the Holy Spirit, wisdom, faith, grace, and power, show his godly character.
B. HIS GODLY CHARACTER SHOWS ITSELF IN ONE OUTER QUALITY: AN ANGELIC COUNTENANCE.
I’m not sure what the face of an angel looks like, but Stephen had such a countenance as he stood before the council. I presume that Luke got this report from Paul, who was there. Whether it was a radiant glow, like the shining of Moses’ face when he came down from the mountain, or a serene calmness, we can’t say. But his face did not look normal. Howard Marshall says, “The description is of a person who is close to God and reflects some of his glory as a result of being in his presence (Ex. 34:29ff.)” (Acts [IVP/Eerdmans], p. 131).
Bob and Arlene Powers, who now serve in Poland, recently told me that people in Eastern Europe do not smile in public very often. If you just walk down the street with a joyful countenance, and say “hello” to people, you stand out. Our faces should reflect to people that we have been in God’s presence, and that we have His joy and peace in our hearts.
2. Stephen’s godly character was the foundation for his courageous witness.
Because of Stephen’s godly character, he was able powerfully and courageously to preach to the Hellenistic Jews from the Synagogue of the Freedmen. The Freedmen were descendants of Jewish slaves captured by Pompey in 63 B.C. and taken to Rome. When they were later expelled from Rome, some went to Jerusalem and formed a synagogue there. Scholars are divided over how many synagogues are represented in 6:9, but probably there were two: the Freedmen, Cyrenians, and Alexandrians on the one hand; and the men from Cilicia and Asia on the other (A. T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament [Broadman], p. 788). Paul was from Cilicia (a province in southern Asia Minor) and may have been one of the debaters who could not cope with Stephen’s wisdom.
Stephen may have been a member of one of these synagogues. The early Christians did not immediately leave the Jewish worship services until they were forced out by persecution. But when Stephen began to preach that Jesus Christ was the end of the law for righteousness for those who believe (Rom. 10:4), and that Jesus superceded Moses as the prophet of whom Moses spoke (7:37), it was too much for these Hellenistic Jews. First they tried to refute him by debate. When that didn’t work, they used false witnesses, stirred up the people, and dragged him before the Sanhedrin. They accused him of speaking against the temple (“this holy place”), and the Law (6:13). They charged him with claiming that Jesus would destroy the temple and the customs that Moses had handed down (6:14). Stephen’s courageous witness teaches us four things:
A. WHEN WE BEAR WITNESS FOR CHRIST, WE ARE SPEAKING TO HEARTS THAT ARE BLINDED BY SATAN AND HARDENED BY SIN.
Why couldn’t these men see what Stephen saw, that Jesus Christ is God’s Messiah and Savior? Why weren’t they persuaded by the great wonders and signs that Stephen performed? Why weren’t they convinced by his superior logic and debating skills? The biblical answer is, “the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving, that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cor. 4:4). They are “darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart” (Eph. 4:18).
Jesus asked the Jews who did not believe in Him, “Why do you not understand what I am saying?” He answered His own question, “It is because you cannot hear My word” (John 8:44). He also said, “No one can come to Me, unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:44). Thus when we talk to people about the Lord, we must pray that He would open their hearts to respond to the message (Acts 16:14).
B. RELIGIOUS PEOPLE ARE OFTEN THE MOST HARDENED IN THEIR OPPOSITION TO THE GOSPEL.
We often think, “Drug addicts, prostitutes, and hardened criminals are blinded and hardened against the gospel. But good, church-going, religious folks are more open.” Not true! These Hellenistic Jews built their whole lives around religion, but they did not know God in a personal way and they did not have their sins forgiven. They are about to lynch an innocent man in the name of their religion. Religion can never save a person from sin, because it relies on human effort and good works. Religion often keeps a person from salvation because it fosters self-righteousness and pride. A religious person must humble his pride and admit that he is a sinner by coming to the cross of Jesus Christ for salvation.
C. WHEN WE BEAR WITNESS TO BLIND, HARDENED SINNERS, WE SHOULD BE PREPARED FOR OPPOSITION.
This is especially true when we talk to religious blinded, hardened sinners! The truth that Stephen preached convicted these men of their sins and threatened their pride, so they tried to refute it. When that failed, they attacked the messenger. That is a common ploy of the enemy. When you can’t defeat the message, go after the messenger, either by deceit or by violence. These men used both against Stephen.
Their false witnesses probably were not fabricating lies out of nothing. Rather, they took statements that Stephen had made and twisted them. He had claimed that Jesus superceded Moses and instituted the New Covenant that was better than the old. They did not bother to see if Scripture predicted such things about Messiah. They simply accused Stephen and the Jesus he proclaimed as speaking against the temple and the customs of Moses. When that didn’t stop him, they used force and finally death to silence him.
I have heard a well-known evangelist say, “People are eager to hear about Christ. All we have to do is tell them.” True, God has prepared many hearts to respond. But don’t be surprised if you encounter fierce opposition. Satan doesn’t sit on the sidelines when someone like Stephen boldly proclaims the truth.
D. MIRACLES, LOGIC, OR WISDOM ARE NOT ENOUGH TO MAKE CONVERTS; ONLY GOD CAN DO THAT.
Stephen was performing “great wonders and signs.” He had superior logic and wisdom in debating these men. But that did not break through the hardness of their hearts. They were blind to the contradictions in their own logic and behavior. They accused Stephen of speaking against the Law, and yet in violation of the ninth commandment, they used false witnesses to slander him! They did not believe that Jesus had risen from the dead, so why did they worry about Stephen’s saying that Jesus will destroy this place (6:14)? How could a dead man do that?
I’m not saying that we should not use logic and wisdom to try to convince people of the truth of the gospel. I am saying that logic, wisdom, and even miracles are not enough to convert a sinner. Only God’s mighty power can do that, as He later proved with Paul.
Thus, Stephen shows us that godly character is the basis for courageous witness.
3. Godly, courageous witnesses must leave the results up to God.
God often works in ways that confound even the logic of His saints. To sacrifice a man of Stephen’s caliber after such a short ministry seems inefficient and illogical. To allow a scoundrel like Caiaphas to rule as high priest over the Jews for 18 years seems wrong. Why not strike that wicked man dead and allow Stephen and other godly men to have long and fruitful ministries? God works in mysterious ways His wonders to perform! Through Stephen’s death, Paul got saved. But first the church was scattered through persecution, resulting in a more widespread witness. Whether the godly die young by violent deaths, and the wicked live long and prosper, is God’s sovereign business. Our business is to be faithful to His Great Commission and leave the results to Him.
Years ago the Romanian pastor, Joseph Tson, ran away from his Communist country to study theology in England. In 1972, when he was ready to go back home, he discussed his plans with his fellow students. They pointed out that he might be arrested at the border. One student asked, “Joseph, what chances do you have of successfully implementing your plans?” Joseph smiled and said to himself, “Now this is typically Western thinking.” He later wrote, “Chances of success? I never thought in those terms. My thinking was in terms of obedience. I knew that the king said, ‘Go,’ and I had to say, ‘Yes, sir,’ and go.”
Tson turned the question around and asked God, “What if I ask You about success?” The Lord gave him Matthew 10:16, “I send you as sheep in the midst of wolves.” The Lord said to him, “Tell me, what chance does a sheep surrounded by wolves have of surviving five minutes, let alone of converting the wolves? Joseph, that’s how I send you: totally defenseless and without a reasonable hope of success. If you are willing to go like that, go. If you are not willing to be in that position, don’t go.” (Pastoral Renewal, [6/86, p. 178).
Ask God to give you the godly character of Stephen so that you will be a courageous witness for Jesus Christ. Leave the results to Him. Whether you lose your life as a martyr or whether God protects you, you will, like Stephen, wear the victor’s crown.
- How godly should a person be before sharing the gospel? Do we have to “have it all together” to be a good witness?
- Which of the character qualities that Stephen had do you most need to work on? How will you go about working on it?
- If God must open the hearts of hardened sinners, then why can’t they blame Him for not believing (see Rom. 9:6-23)?
- How can we help religious people to see their need for forgiveness and eternal life? (Consider Jesus’ approach in the Sermon on the Mount.)
by, Steven J. Cole, 2001, All Rights Reserved.
3.0 What should we learn from the life of Stephen?
Answer: Acts 6:5 introduces a faithful man of God named Stephen: “a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit.” It is noteworthy that there have always been those faithful believers whose love for and commitment to the Lord seem to shine through so greatly that others around them notice, and Stephen was such a man. Nothing is known about the personal life of Stephen—his parents, his siblings, or whether he had a wife or children; however, what is known about him is what is truly important. He was faithful, even when faced with certain death.
Stephen found himself in the middle of a conflict between the Jews who still embraced the Jewish culture and those who had turned more toward the Greeks in their language and culture. Satan always causes dissension within congregations, as a means of division; therefore, faithful men such as Stephen were chosen to combat the ever-increasing problems that were rising. After being unable to find a winnable argument for their erroneous beliefs, the unbelievers decided to falsely accuse Stephen, labeling him a blasphemer and having him arrested (Acts 6:11).
Acts 7 is the record of Stephen’s testimony, which is perhaps the most detailed and concise history of Israel and their relationship to God of any in Scripture. Stephen was not concerned about his earthly existence, determining instead to stand firmly on the side of Jesus Christ, no matter the consequences. God inspired him to speak boldly, rightly accusing Israel of their failure to recognize Jesus, their Messiah, rejecting and murdering Him, as they had murdered Zechariah and other prophets and faithful men throughout their generations. Stephen’s speech was an indictment against Israel and their failure as the chosen people of God who had been given the law, the holy things, and the promise of the Messiah. Naturally, these accusations, though true, were not well received by the Jews.
In his speech, Stephen reminded them of their faithful patriarch, Abraham, and how God had led him from a pagan land into the land of Israel, where He made a covenant with him that was still in effect. He spoke of the journey of his people, through Joseph’s sojourn in Egypt to their deliverance by Moses 400 years later. He brought to mind how Moses had met God in the wilderness of Midian in a burning bush, and he explained how God had empowered Moses to lead His people from idolatry and slavery to freedom and times of refreshing in the Promised Land. Throughout his speech, he repeatedly reminded them of their continual rebellion and idolatry, in spite of the mighty works of God to which they were eyewitnesses, thereby accusing them with their own history, which only irritated them until they did not want to hear any more.
The law of Moses states that the sin of blasphemy deserves a death sentence, usually by stoning (Numbers 15:30-36). Just before these arrogant, unredeemed Jews follow the prescribed penalty and begin stoning Stephen, Acts 7:55-56 records his final moments of earthly life, just before he stepped through the veil between heaven and earth: “But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.’”
The words of Colossians 3:2-3 could have been written about the life of Stephen, even though they are applicable to all believers: “Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God.” Stephen’s life—and even more so his death—should be an example of how every believer should strive to live: committed to the Lord even in the face of death; faithful to preach the gospel boldly; knowledgeable of God’s truth; and willing to be used by God for His plan and purpose. Stephen’s testimony still stands as a beacon, a light to a lost and dying world, as well as an accurate history of the children of Abraham.
Stephen in the Bible – First Christian Martyr
SOURCES: ….. http://christianity.about.com/od/newtestamentpeople/fl/Stephen-in-the-Bible.htm (By Jack Zavada)
In the way he lived and died, Stephen catapulted the early Christian church from its local Jerusalem roots to a cause that spread across the entire world.
Little is known about Stephen in the Bible before he was ordained a deacon in the young church, as described in Acts 6:1-6. Although he was just one of seven men chosen to make sure food was fairly distributed to the Grecian widows, Stephen soon began to stand out:
Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people. (Acts 6:8, NIV)
Exactly what those wonders and miracles were, we are not told, but Stephen was empowered to do them by the Holy Spirit. His name suggests he was a Hellenistic Jew who spoke and preached in Greek, one of the common languages in Israel in that day.
Members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen argued with Stephen. Scholars think these men were freed slaves from various parts of the Roman empire. As devout Jews, they would have been horrified at Stephen’s claim that Jesus Christ was the much-awaited Messiah.
First Christian Martyr
This revolutionary message got Stephen hauled before the Sanhedrin, the same Jewish council that had condemned Jesus to death for blasphemy. When Stephen preached an impassioned defense of Christianity, a mob dragged him outside the city and stoned him.
Stephen had a vision of Jesus and said he saw the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God. That was the only time in the New Testament anyone other than Jesus himself called him the Son of Man. Before he died, Stephen said two things very similar to Jesus’ last words from the cross:
“Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” and “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” (Acts 7:59-60, NIV)
But Stephen’s influence was even stronger after his death. A young man watching the murder was Saul of Tarsus, who would later be converted by Jesus and become the apostle Paul. Ironically, Paul’s fire for Christ would mirror Stephen’s.
Before he converted, however, Saul would persecute other Christians in the name of the Sanhedrin, causing early church members to flee Jerusalem, taking the gospel wherever they went. Thus, Stephen’s execution began the spread of Christianity.
Accomplishments of Stephen in the Bible
Stephen was a bold evangelist who was not afraid to preach the gospel despite dangerous opposition. His courage came from the Holy Spirit. While facing death, he was rewarded with a heavenly vision of Jesus himself.
Strengths of Stephen in the Bible
Stephen was well-educated in the history of God’s plan of salvation and how Jesus Christ fit into it as the Messiah. He was truthful and brave.
- The Holy Spirit equips believers to do things they could not humanly do. Stephen was a gifted preacher, but the text shows God gave him wisdom and courage.
- What seems like a tragedy can somehow be part of God’s great plan. Stephen’s death had the unexpected consequence of forcing Christians to flee persecution in Jerusalem. The gospel spread far and wide as a result.
- The full impact of our lives may not be felt until decades after our death. God’s work is constantly unfolding and goes forth on his timetable.
References to Stephen in the Bible
Stephen’s story is told in chapters 6 and 7 of the book of Acts. He is also mentioned in Acts 8:2, 11:19, and 22:20.
“However, the Most High does not live in houses made by men. As the prophet says: ‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me? says the Lord. Or where will my resting place be?'” (NIV)
But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” (NIV)
(Sources: The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary, Merrill F. Unger; Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, Trent C. Butler, general editor; The New Compact Bible Dictionary, T. Alton Bryant, editor.)
1.0) Source: http://www.biblestudytools.com/encyclopedias/isbe/stephen.html
2.0) Source: https://bible.org/seriespage/lesson-17-stephen-man-acts-68-15
3.0) Source: http://www.gotquestions.org/life-Stephen.html
4.0) Source: http://christianity.about.com/od/newtestamentpeople/fl/Stephen-in-the-Bible.htm (By Jack Zavada)
Source: bibleresources.americanbible.org | Tittle: “A Guide to Key Events, Characters and Themes of the Bible”