Stephen was what the church calls a “layman.” This means he was not professional clergy or a full time pastor as we would say. He has the distinction of the being the first martyr in the history of the Christian church. He was a servant of God.
Picked as one of the seven designated to distribute food to widows, he obviously took ministry seriously and began to be very well known for his work. In fact the Bible says that he preformed amazing miracles among the people he served. Given what some would consider to be a menial task (waiting on tables or serving widows) he allowed the Spirit of God to work through him. His life reminds me of the words of Paul in Ephesians 3:20:
“Now to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, 21 to Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.
The effectiveness of God’s Holy Spirit working in Stephen attracted attention and those opposed to the spread of Christianity were fighting mad. Within a very short time span Stephen was murdered for his faith in Jesus Christ. Someone said, death reveals who we really are. In the case of Stephen we find out that as he dies for his faith he doesn’t have to worry about how he has lived. His spiritual bills are all paid. He doesn’t have any unresolved conflicts in his life or any hidden sin that he needs to confess.
There are some reasons for his effectiveness as a Christfollower. Today for a few moments I want to look at them with you and my prayer is that you and I will successfully examine our lives and the things we are passionate about an align them with consistent Christfollowing.
So here is Stephen’s life and profile:
1. He was a Purposeful Man
Here are some facts about Stephen:
He was full of faith. Acts 6:8 He was full of the Holy Spirit Acts 6:3,5,10 He was full grace Acts 6:8 He was full of power Acts 6:8 He was full of wisdom Acts 6:3,10 He was well respected Acts 6:3 He did great works Acts 6:8 He defended the faith Acts 6:10
These facts are the foundation of a life well lived. He was not a great saint that lived above what anybody else could attain. He was just a man that surrendered his life to Christ and allowed the Holy Spirit of God to use him in ways that were beyond his own power and personal abilities.
A. He was strong in his walk and wisdom
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 NLT
Our life needs to matter. It doesn’t matter what your profession is, in fact often your place of work is your mission field if you are an authentic Christfollower. I have known people that will think of their jobs in a negative way but a little perspective on their places of labor would allow them to see that no matter where you are when you are strong in your Christian walk and full of the wisdom that comes from God it becomes a place of service and influence for Christ.
Remember one of the qualifications we looked at last week to serve in the food distribution program was to be full of wisdom. Now we read that those arguing about his faith couldn’t stand against “the wisdom and the Spirit with which Stephen spoke.”
B. He was a student of God’s Word Acts 7:2-50
Stephen had no Bible to read but when he launched into his impromptu sermon it is amazing how familiar he is with the Old Testament story. He was addressing angry Jews and so he quotes extensively from the biblical stories of their own history.
He told the story of Abraham and God’s enduring promise to him. He spoke of Joseph and how God granted him unusual wisdom (Acts 7:10) He reminded them of Moses and how even though God had sent him to rescue the people of Israel they rejected him over and over. This would include the outbreak of sinful behavior that started when Moses was on the mountain receiving the Ten Commandments. He then ended with the story of David and his son that planned and build the temple as a place of permanence for worship and prayer.
Stephen attacked three sacred cows in this unrehearsed sermon. He brought the theology of Christ down hard on three great pillars of popular Judaism: the land, the law and the temple – three false basis’s for faith and confidence before God. We don’t have time to study this sermon but he not only attacked these sacred cows but in the words of Kent Hughes, “He took them by the horns and turned them belly up.”
The Holy Land: People today still act like it is something magical yet Stephen drives home the point that God blessed Abraham even though he did not yet occupy as much as a foot of the Holy Land. The land is not the blessing. Even though Moses gave the people the law as God gave it to him Moses also predicted in Deuteronomy 18:15 that God would raise up for the Jews a prophet. This Messiah would be the hope of redemption not the law. And finally he dared speak about the sacred temple. The temple we should be most worried about is the temple of our bodies where we are told in God’s word that the Spirit of God abides or lives.
What does any of this have to do with us today?
The land: It is possible to imagine that since we live in a privileged nation where so much good has been done and so many godly people reared, we surely inherit God’s blessing.
The law: Sometime we, like the Jews of old, make a fetish out of God’s word. We carry it with us, mark appropriately, thumb it piously but fail to let it take root in our hearts.
The temple: It is easy to suppose that since we go to the place where God has chosen to meet His people, we receive special blessing.
It is possible to have all these things and yet be pitifully and utterly devoid of an authentic relationship with Jesus Christ.
This message was more than enough to get Stephen killed but he was not only purposefully driven in his life he was a passionate messenger.
2. He was a Passionate Messenger
“You stubborn people! You are heathenat 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 7:51-53 NLT
I don’t think I need to spend a lot of time on these next three points. Let me just say that like Stephen, we need to be passionate about the message Christ entrusted us to share.
We don’t need to hold back for anything or anybody.
Peter Cartwright, a nineteenth-century circuit-riding Methodist preacher, was an uncompromising man. One Sunday morning when he was to preach, he was told that President Andrew Jackson was in the congregation, and he was warned not to say anything out of line.
When Cartwright stood to preach, he said, “I understand that Andrew Jackson is here. I have been requested to be guarded in my remarks but Andrew Jackson will go to hell if he doesn’t repent.”
The congregation was shocked and wondered how the President would respond.
After the service, President Jackson shook hands with Peter Cartwright and said, “Sir, if I had a regiment of men like you, I could whip the world.”
When you are passionate about the message of Christ you fear no one. You don’t have to be obnoxious but you do have to be passionate.
3. He had a Personal Master
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!” Acts 7:54-56 NLT
This summer we are looking for the Holy Spirit both in the first century church and in the lives of the followers. Look at this phrase in verse 55: “But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit. . .”
I don’t know about you but I long at times to be around some people that will live in this way. Too often we are distracted by our lifestyles. We are overcome with work and running here and there and we are often miss out on the blessing of living sold out lives for Christ. There is so much to see and do and we spend hours trying to entertain ourselves. Some people self medicate themselves to dull the pain instead of allowing God to work through them and their pain. We will go to great lengths to avoid a personal relationship with Christ because down deep we know if we have a personal relationship with Him He is going to mess around in our lives.
Stephen had walked consistently in a relationship with Christ and now at his unexpected hour of death he is rewarded with a glimpse of Jesus. I love the wording of his statement. The scriptures uniformly have Jesus seated at the right hand of God yet in Stephen’s case He was standing. Can you imagine it for a moment?
What would bring the Son of Man to His feet? One of His children in trouble. We are told that He sits at the Fathers right hand and intercedes for us but I submit to you that there are moments in the life of follower of Christ when our troubles on this earth bring Him out of His seat.
It is in the heart of our suffering that we are most like Christ. It is when our crosses have to be picked up and borne on our weary shoulders that we are most like our Lord.
Tennyson wrote these lines about Stephen:
He heeded not reviling tones
Nor sold his heart to idle moans
Tho cursed and scorned and bruised with stones
But looking upward full of grace.
He prayed, and from a happy place
God’s glory smote him on the face.
You can feel the closeness in the room. You can feel that things have heated up and they are about to explode.
Ever felt like that in your own life?
A familiar hymn says it best:
Tho Satan should buffet, tho trials should come,
Let this blest assurance control,
That Christ has regarded my helpless estate
And has shed His own blood for my soul.
When your life is at its lowest point there is nothing like already being in a relationship with a personal Jesus and Master. Stephen was about to face a horrific death but there was something peaceful about him.
4. He had a Peaceful Mission
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.[n]
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 7:57-60 NLT
Right down to the end he was full of Christ and His Spirit. In a scene reminiscent of the death of Christ on the cross Stephen prays the very prayer that Jesus prayed for those that killed him.
Already in this series several times I have pointed out that we always instructed to go back to the mission Christ left us to do. When we come to the last moments of our life on this earth none of our stuff will matter. All the junk we have spent so much time and energy on and even our greatest achievements will not matter in those moments.
What does matter is that we can know without reservation that our souls are clear before God.
Death reveals who we truly are. Consider the French philosopher Voltaire, who used to say concerning Christ, “Curse the wretch.” He also boasted, “In twenty years Christianity will be no more. My single hand shall destroy the edifice it took twelve apostles to rear.” Voltaire was proud, confident, and cynical but when he died, he cried in desperation, “I am abandoned by God and man! I give you half of what I am worth if you give me six months’ life. Then I shall go to hell; and you shall go with me. O Christ! O Jesus Christ!”
In contrast, the moment of death also sometimes reveals spiritual beauty. John Wesley, died full of counsel, exhortations and praise for God. His final words were, “The best of all is, God is with us. Farewell.” Adoniram Judson, the great American missionary to Burma, suffering immensely at death, said to those around, “I go with the gladness of a boy bounding away from school, I feel so strong in Christ.” Jonathan Edwards, dying from smallpox, gave some final directions, bid his daughter good-bye, and expired saying, “Where is Jesus, my never-failing friend?”
What is the sum of your life going to total? What are you doing with the hours and days you spend on this earth?
How is it with your soul today?
How are you doing in your relationship with Christ?
Do you feel like your life has taken a direction that is beyond your control?
The World Needs Men and Women...
who cannot be bought; whose word is their bond; who put character above wealth; who possess opinions and a will; who are larger than their vocations; who do not hesitate to take chances; who will not lose their individuality in a crowd; who will be as honest in small things as in great things; who will make no compromise with wrong; whose ambitions are not confined to their own selfish desires; who will not say they do it" because everybody else does it"; who are true to their friends through good report and evil report, in adversity as well as in prosperity; who do not believe that shrewdness, cunning, and hardheadedness are the best qualities for winning success; who are not ashamed or afraid to stand for the truth when it is unpopular; who can say "no" with emphasis, although all the rest of the world says "yes."
In response to this message and story from God’s Word today we are going to ask you to consider several responses.
We invite you to pray.
We invite you to sing.
We invite you to take your rock and offer it as a memorial to the life and death of Stephen and as a sign to God that you are willing to live this way.
We call you to day to be purposeful with your life, to be passionate in your love for Christ and His message, to be in a personal relationship with Christ and that you live in peace till you draw your last fleeting breath.