We have learned how to avoid conflict by keeping quiet. If we can avoid certain subjects we will be sure to keep the peace. That’s true in our home, among our friends, at work. For most subjects that is perfectly acceptable to keep the peace. But when it comes to the truth of the gospel—that approach is unacceptable.
Chapter six represents something of a transition point in the life of this young community. So far, all of the witnessing has been done by the apostles. Now we see Stephen’s involvement. In the next chapter, his speech and subsequent execution will spark the scattering of the disciples that spread the gospel into “Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (8:1; cf. 1:8).
Before we read this passage let us look to the Lord in prayer for his help in understanding it.
Stephen has just been ordained by the apostles to serve the tables. If anyone had the excuse to stay out of the crossfire it was him. No one would have stopped him for carrying the distribution to widows. This would have been like avoiding the outreach team because you’re already on the set-up crew.
As the persecution increased, it was an opportune time for him to stay in the background. But Stephen was more than a good servant, he was an ambassador for Christ.
Luke wrote about Stephen with deep appreciation for the spark he brought to the movement. This section would have emboldened the original readers as they reflected upon the ministry of the first martyr of the new covenant. It would have been a sobering reminder of a man used by God to make a huge impact in such a short amount of time.
It reminds us of men like Jim Elliot, David Brainerd, or any number of “one-way” missionaries who bought one-way tickets and packed their possessions in coffins because they knew it was unlikely they would ever return home.
Like the original audience, we need to be emboldened by this narrative. Reading about the life and death of martyrs is something that has emboldened the church throughout history.
First, we will look at The Fortitude of Stephen (8-10). Second, we’ll see The Fraud of the Freedmen (11-14). And third, we will consider The Face of an Angel (15).
The Fortitude of Stephen (8-10)
God filled Stephen with “grace and power” (v.8). Previously described as “full of the Spirit and of wisdom” (v.3), and “full of faith and the Holy Spirit” (v.5). The Spirit’s work in Stephen’s life is mentioned several times. It is evidenced not only by the “wonders and signs” he was doing, but also in the character and wisdom he displayed in his interaction with his opposition.
The synagogue of the Freedmen was multi-cultural. There were at least five distinct groups of people represented. These were Greek-speaking Jews probably offended by Stephen’s apparent betrayal of their people.
With folks migrating from Cilicia, it is possible that Saul’s family attended this very synagogue. But Paul is a bit of an anomaly because he called himself a “Hebrew of Hebrews” (Phil. 3:5), so he may have preferred a Hebrew-speaking synagogue. At the very least we know that Saul was approving of the violent approach of Stephen’s opposition (7:58; 8:1).
The Spirit spoke through Stephen just as Jesus said would happen: “For I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict” (Luke 21:15).
Jesus’ teaching had the same effect as Stephen’s teaching. The mouths of his opposition was silenced. The wisdom with which Stephen spoke is the wisdom of Christ, who spoke with a wisdom that was greater than Solomon’s (Mt. 12:42; Lk. 11:31).
Stephen’s grace, faith, wisdom, and power were a reflection of the character and attributes that Christ displayed.
When we are full of grace, power, faith, and the Holy Spirit—we are emptied of contradictory characteristics. To be full of the Holy Spirit is to be emptied of self. To be full of grace is to be emptied of self-justification. To be full of power is to be emptied of weakness. To be full of faith is to be emptied of doubt.
If this seems overwhelming, it should. This is not something we are naturally inclined to do. But the reason Stephen was full of grace and power was because God filled him with grace and power. He was full of faith and the Holy Spirit because God filled him with faith and the Holy Spirit. God enables us to do that which he commissions us to do. God provides the boldness and strength we need.
But you need to hear this; our obedience to the commission does not depend upon God first emboldening us. We don’t wait for the infusion of boldness before we obey. We obey trusting that God will enable us along the way. The feeling often follows—rather than precedes—obedience.
That means you walk by faith, not by sight. It means you trust that God will work in you, and through you, exactly what he requires of you. It means the gospel is not just information, but transformation.
The fortitude of Stephen prepared him to face…
The Fraud of the Freedmen (11-14)
Unable to defeat the superior wisdom of Stephen in debate, the opposition turned to fraud, or instigation (literally “bribery”). They began slinging mud, spreading rumors and lies about Stephen. He wasn’t seized because of the wonders he was doing, but because of the message he proclaimed.
They accused him of speaking “blasphemous words against Moses and God” and “against…[the temple] and the law” (v.11, 13). Jesus was accused of the same thing. He did say that he would destroy the temple (Mk. 14:58), but he was referring to his body (Jn 2:21). The temple would be replaced by “one greater than the temple,” himself (Mt. 12:6). He spoke similarly about his fulfillment of the law. Both the temple and the law foreshadowed what Christ would do. This wasn’t blasphemy against Moses and God. He wasn’t speaking against the temple or the law. He was proclaiming the fulfillment of all they pointed forward to.
If this teaching landed Jesus on the cross, surely it would do the same for Stephen. A servant is not above his master (Jn 15:20). Stephen knew the risk, but he cared more about the gospel and the salvation of his audience than his own life. The Spirit of God enabled Stephen to love his enemies more than himself.
To say nothing when the need is so great, is like the prophets and priests who cried “Peace, peace” when there was no peace (Jer. 6:13-14). If there is a war going on, we better tell people to prepare.
A spiritual battle is raging all around us. And every day sinners step closer to their judgment. Jonathan Edwards warned, “Unconverted men walk over the pit of hell on a rotten covering.” At any point they might slip and fall into everlasting torment.
Will you warn them? We cannot remain silent when we possess the only remedy to their condition.
Those in danger might be our family members, coworkers, bosses, employees, neighbors, or strangers. Do you care about their salvation more than you care for your own life?
Paul goes even further in Romans 9:1-3,
“I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit—that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh.”
That’s insane! Paul was willing to be “cut off from Christ” in order to see God’s glory and kingdom advance.1
Some think God’s sovereignty in evangelism alleviates their responsibility. But that wasn’t the case with Paul. Our commitment to God’s glory should not make us complacent. Rather, we should feel a holy discontentment whenever God’s glory is diminished by unbelief.
I struggle to even desire what Stephen and Paul had. I like my safety too much. We need God to give us a heart for the lost that is deeper than our desire for safety.
The wickedness of the Freedmen stood opposed to one with…
The Face of an Angel (15)
We learn a lot about someone just by looking at their facial expressions. Children play peek-a-boo thinking if they just cover their face they are invisible. Stephen hadn’t yet spoken to the council, but they saw his angelic face.
We are reminded of Moses descending Mt. Sinai with his face glowing—revealing that he had been with God (Exod. 34:29). Stephen’s face was probably shining as well.
John Stott comments, “In this way God was showing that both Moses’ ministry of the law and Stephen’s interpretation of it had his approval.”2 Jesus’ face “shone like the sun” at his transfiguration (Mt. 17:2). It is a description often given to those who had been with God.
The reason Stephen was able to respond as he did was because he spent time in the presence of God. Surely, this means he was a man of the word and prayer. Stephen’s face revealed his character. God’s approval was clearly upon this man who was full of grace and power and wisdom and the Spirit. Now, his angelic face was a visible representation of God’s approval.
This explains the wisdom Stephen has already shown and sets up the answer he will go on to give in the next chapter. God’s approval is upon the sermon Stephen is about to preach.
It is about knowing God and making him known. It is about sin and its devastating effect upon all mankind. It’s about explaining the only solution for sin that has been given in Christ!
Grace elevates our concern for the glory of God and the salvation of his people over our own safety or reputation.
Now, that sounds very manly doesn’t it? Only an illustration from Braveheart could improve it. I’m not suggesting that everyone throw themselves into harms way for the sake of Christ. This isn’t about being the hero. Many of us have spouses and children who depend upon us. We cannot all move to the Middle East in order to evangelize members of ISIS. So do all of these extreme examples in Acts have nothing to do with us?
I fear many of us are tempted to tune out any implications from this text. We aren’t living in Stephen’s situation. We don’t have members of ISIS threatening to behead us. And so what happens? We do nothing.
If we are married we say our spouse is our priority. If we are single we say finding a spouse or establishing my career is priority. If we are a single-parent we say our kids need every minute of my attention. If we are rich we have to maintain the lifestyle at all costs. If we are poor, we have to get out of poverty. If we are Republican/Democrat/Independent we have to promote our candidate. If life is exciting we have to share it with all of our friends on Facebook. If things are difficult—those events occupy all our thoughts.
No matter where we are in life. No matter how high or how low—nothing is ever more important than the glory of God.
Our response should be one of confidence. Stephen has been seized and falsely accused of speaking blasphemy. The opposition in this passage has moved beyond the Sanhedrin and into the Jewish synagogues, and even into the streets. And yet Stephen is completely at peace. His life was not his own. In the next chapter, they will let him respond to the accusations and he will preach the longest sermon recorded in Acts, followed by his execution.
Because the glory of God was of most importance for Stephen, his death was gain (7:55). When we live for Christ—when his kingdom purposes become our own—death is gain (Phil. 1:21).
There is One who gave up everything—riches, family, glory, and power—who emptied himself—making himself nothing—taking the form of a servant and becoming obedient unto death—death upon a shameful cross (Phil. 2:5-11).
When we behold the wondrous mystery—that the perfect Son of Man would pay the price of our redemption—in order to bring us to glory (Heb. 2:10). We have a foretaste of that eternal glory that awaits us—and it makes temporary shame, temporary suffering pale in comparison to the glory that will be revealed to us (Rom. 8:18).
Only when we grasp the fullness of this grace will it elevate our concern for the glory of God and the salvation of his people over our own safety or reputation.
1 Calvin’s Institutes 3.20.35. John Calvin writes,
“In the examples of Moses and Paul, we see that it was not grievous for them to turn their minds and eyes away from themselves and to long for their own destruction with fierce and burning zeal in order that, despite their own loss, they might advance God’s glory and kingdom.”
2 John Stott, The Message of Acts, 129.