Stephen, the Church’s First Martyr
Acts 6:3-5 “Wherefore brethren, look ye out among you seven men of honest report, full of the Holy Ghost and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business.
But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word.
And the saying pleased the whole multitude: and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost, and Phillip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolas a proselyte of Antioch;”
Here we meet Stephen, born again and willing to minister as he is called…for he is chosen to “serve tables”, or as a deacon.
There had been a argument between the Grecian Christians and the Hebrew Christians about how the widows of each were being treated. Some felt that the Grecian widows were not given the same treatment and food, as the others.
(Remember that the Christians, here, had given all to the apostles for the common good. Acts 4:34-35)
If this was to be overseen as it should be, the apostles would have to leave preaching and teaching the gospel, to see to it.
That could not be….so they told the church there to pray and see who they could choose to deal with the business and practical part of the matters of the church…they became the deacons.
Stephen was one of these. He was a man of faith and who was filled with the Holy Spirit.
He was not offended because he was given the task of seeing to the food distribution, or dealing with the strifes which come up between brethren.
Faith sees God and deals with all in the same light: what does the Lord want done?
He looked on everything he did for the Lord as equally important.
Acts 6:8 “And Stephen, full of faith and power, did great wonders and miracles among the people.”
He also did miracles, whether these were of the practical nature of food, or for illness, it does not say.
But it does bring into the picture those who wanted to prove him wrong. Notice they “disputed” with him, not he with them.
But they could not, for “they were not able to resist the wisdom and the spirit by which he spake.”
Acts 6:11-12 “Then they suborned men, which said, We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses, and against God.
And they stirred up the people, and the elders, and the scribes, and came upon him, and caught him, and brought him to the council.”
So here is Stephen before the council, accused falsely by jealous men.
(This council had spoken to Peter and John months earlier, and had beaten them and let them go, but now….)
He stands before them, in peace; calm. They “saw his face as it had been the face of an angel.” Simply, they could tell that he was filled with the Spirit of God, that he was not a blasphemer.
This should have told them that these accusations were false….but, let’s face it, they wanted to believe the accusations.
Acts 7:1-2 “Then said the high priest, Are these things so? And he (Stephen)said, Men, brethren, and fathers, hearken; the God of glory appeared unto our father Abraham, when he was in Mesopotamia, before he dwelt in Haran,”
In the next 52 verses, Stephen, by the wisdom of God, showed again and again God’s choice of His people by grace, not works.
God’s use of men who were not reckoned in men’s esteem, but chosen of God to go out, to lead, to save, to build…
Abraham, to go out to a land that was given in promise, but which he never possessed….
Then Isaac who was circumcised…
Jacob, the younger son, chosen, and his sons being brought into the covenant; even though they sold their own brother, Joseph, into slavery…
Yet God saved them, and their whole family by the very man they were jealous of…
Moses’ birth and his rejection when he would have helped his people. His flight into Midian and God’s call to the very one they refused:
Acts 7:35 “This Moses whom they refused saying, Who made thee a ruler and a judge? The same did God send to be a ruler and a deliverer by the hand of the Angel which appeared to him in the bush.”
Stephen told of when Israel, in their further refusal of God’s Words, which made a golden calf.
And even when they were brought in by Joshua, to the promised land, they turned to idols.
He told of David as king, fighting their battles, desiring to build a house for God, but God chose Solomon to do it.
Yet, Stephen shows exactly what Solomon said after he dedicated it:
1 Kings 8:23, 27 “And he said, Lord God of Israel, there is no God like Thee, in heaven above, or on the earth beneath, who keepest covenant in mercy with Thy servants that walk before Thee with all their heart:
But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Behold, the heaven and heaven of heavens can not contain Thee; how much less this house that I have builded?”
Simply: the Most High dwells not in temples made with hands, but in the love and devotion of His people’s hearts.
Stephen wanted his brethren to remember their God, not their heritage.
He had not blasphemed Moses or the Law, but was a servant of the Lord of both, Jesus Christ.
So the conclusion of his message?
God’s grace had chosen them as His people.
God’s grace had chosen and sent men to save and lead them, into all God wanted for them.
But how did the people react?
Which of the prophets had not been persecuted by their fathers, which had told them of the Messiah to come?
All this is leading toward one goal….that Jesus was the Messiah, Who had come to show the way into the Kingdom of God, by Himself, as their King.
He was the One whom all the prophets spoke.
He was the One to whom all the other of God’s choices, pointed.
What would they do with Him now, that He was risen and manifested by the Holy Ghost among them?
Stephen wanted his brethren to see that God was even then dealing with them.
He wanted them to acknowledge God’s choice…..Jesus, Whom they betrayed and murdered…and that He is now at the right hand of God, the place of power.
The Spirit of God was leading many in Jerusalem to salvation…..God was giving them another sign of His love to them.
Would they hear it?
(How many today, hang on to tradition; even Christian tradition, rather than being gathered to the Lord God, Himself.)
Yet even as Stephen spoke, he sensed in the Spirit the hardening of their hearts….
So he openly rebukes it, and faithfully deals with them for their rebellion against the “Just One”.
The name: Just One, implies Christ Jesus’s holiness and righteousness. He did not deserve to be crucified. He deserved to be King, both of His people and the world.
He was and is the Just One, and the justifier of all who come to Him.
Romans 5:8-9 “But God commendeth His love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.
Much more then, being now justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him.”
Their history they listened to; but the rebuke, which might lead them to repentance and true salvation……they refused,…and in great anger.
Acts 7:54 “When they heard these things, they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed on him with their teeth.”
“Cut to the heart”
Stephen’s rebuke (rebuke means “back striking them into the right way”. It is never pleasant to be rebuked….but to those who “hear it”….it gives life.)
Stephen’s rebuke opened to them the state of their own hearts, like a knife.
And instead of letting it heal them, like a surgeon; they let it unleash the anger within…which quickly turned to hatred of God’s servant.
He was unaffected for himself; but totally immersed in the Will of God, for them.
God then blessed him with more of the Spirit of God, and a vision:
Acts 7:55-56 “But he, being full of the Holy Ghost, looked up steadfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God.
And said, Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing on the right hand of God.”
The council would not hear….stopping their ears, they dragged him out, and stoned him…as though that could stop his witness….No! (Remember Saul/Paul was witnessing all of this)
Acts 7:59-60 “And they stoned Stephen, calling upon God, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.
And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge. And when he had said this, he fell asleep.”
Stephen, with the same ruling peace (Philippians 4:7) with which he began; he ends, looking unto Jesus for himself…
“Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Acknowledging before all, that the Lord Jesus Christ was the Son of God, and risen, in heaven.
And then, in the character of Jesus, he forgives those that stoned him.
“Lay not this sin” (yes, he called it what it was; but still asks…)
“Lay not this sin to their charge.”
“He fell asleep”. You see, when Christians die, they are said to fall asleep. For they close their eyes here, and in the next second, open them in heaven.
Stephen was the first of the churches martyrs, but not the last.
Many have died, looking to Jesus the same way.
Because He is the Son of God…because He lives, we do and will, eternally, too.