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INTRO: When you think of the name Stephen (from the Bible), what is the first thing that pops in to your head?
(Almost undoubtedly it is “the first Christian martyr” or “the stoning of Stephen.”) - Jim Elliot and Nate Saint… Elizabeth Elliot … Gracia Burnham (husband Martin)…
Our study today will help us perceive how Stephen the simple servant of Christ’s church becomes a target for those who oppose Christ, and why you want to be like him.
Sometimes when we dig into God’s word we are faced with things that are harder to wrap our minds around, and sometimes we are faced with things that are harder to apply.
This is the latter.
Today we’ll take the first part of three sections in a row about Stephen: the man and his ministry (Acts 6:8-15), the message (the speech he gave before the council, and his martyrdom.
What does Luke want the reader to take away from what happens with Stephen?
What does Luke want us to know about the man and the ministry and the message that he preached that led to him witnessing to the ultimate degree—to his martyrdom?
Why Stephen Matters: A Pivotal Man for a Pivotal Moment
Stephen would have been a famous name in the early church, even as he is to this day.
So Luke would want to offer an explanation for what happened to Stephen, emphasizing the similarity between Stephen and Christ himself, and showing how Stephen was God’s man for the moment.
Stephen is pivotal first of all in the sense that he demonstrates progression and succession of Spirit-empowered ministry of the followers of Jesus, a succession that leads even to us.
As the Apostles were in the line of ministry given to them by Jesus, and as Stephen is in the line ministry succession from the Apostles, so we too are in the line of succession of Stephen, becoming followers of Jesus and ministers in His movement.
This section of Acts is not entitled, “The Church Suffers A Setback.” No, a more appropriate title for this section might be (Acts 6:8-9:31), “Persecution Spreads the Gospel Witness Beyond Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria.”
Stephen’s martyrdom was the catalyst.
To be clear then, becoming like Stephen is becoming like Jesus.
Luke therefore offers Stephen as an example to follow in faithful ministry, bold proclamation, and a calm trust in God’s care.
For the rest of the our time in the word this morning, then, I want us to consider how Stephen the server becomes Stephen the martyr, and how we might aim to be like him.
Stephen becomes Stephen because he’s a surrendered, Spirit-empowered servant of Christ.
8-10 in context)
When we first read these transitional verses, especially verse 8, we’re like, “So now Stephen is performing miracles (v.
8) and preaching (v.10)?
Wait, isn’t he one of the guys the church just picked to serve in the ministry of distributing charity to the widows?”
As we said, not only is Stephen proof that God will use others in ministry besides the Apostles, but this kind of ministry is an answer to the prayer of the believers.
- See 4:29-30.
And if we are attentive to the context, we ought to see that this ministry grows naturally, or supernaturally as it were, out of Stephen simply being surrendered to Christ by faith and empowered by the Spirit to serve.
Stephen Is Surrendered to Christ, Walking in the Spirit, Cooperating in a Healthy Christian Community, Being Faithful in the Little Things, and Seizing Opportunities
Surrendered to Christ by faith (see the description of him in v. 5) - We must be in Christ and aiming to glorify Christ.
(see Simon the magician in chapter 8) - Are you surrendered to Christ?
Walking in the Spirit (same place, also v. 8 - Where does this power and wisdom come from?
This is Spirit-empowered ministry.
All true Christian ministry is Spirit-empowered.
If whatever we’re doing isn’t by the grace and power of God, it isn’t Christian ministry.
It’s something else altogether.)
Cooperating in a healthy Christian community - He was chosen as one of the seven because of character recognized by the community (v.
He was chosen to serve charity to the widows, and he was doing so willingly and effectively.
- The church choosing the seven to help with serving sets in motion further ministry beyond the initial reason for their selection.
Preservation of unity through fairness to the Hellenistic Jews within the community also leads to further gospel witness to Hellenists.
For Luke, Stephen is the embodiment of this important transition in the life and ministry of the church, and he embodies all the qualities of a faithful servant of Christ.
Being faithful in the little things is what afforded this opportunity among fellow hellenistic Jews.
- Imagine the situation & progression here.
Situation: separate synagogues for the Hellenist Jews (those who spoke Greek and likely would have used the Septuagint - Gk translation of the OT scriptures, which had been in existence for at least a couple of centuries now - often quoted by NT authors) - It was this very situation which created the need for the Apostles to have some men of godly character, who themselves were likely hellenists, to help serve charity to the widows, so the hellenistic widows were no longer overlooked.
You can imagine a natural progression of Stephen’s ministry.
Serving widows, possibly even using the synagogue(s) as a center for their distribution.
The synagogue in Jewish life was more than simply a center for worship (of public scripture reading and prayer and teaching).
It was the civil center for adjudicating disputes, as well as forming a center for community life in general.
So as Stephen and others are distributing to widows, Stephen has opportunities to speak about the significance of the fact that Jesus had come.
And what he said drew more and more attention, and he was speaking to more and more of them.
Those specifically mentioned here: Freedmen - descended from Jews who had been captured and taken to Rome by the general Pompey (106–48 bc), then later released.
Pompey found that the Jews adhered so strictly to their religious and national customs that they were worthless as slaves.
The way the Greek syntax is structured, we cannot be certain how many synagogues are being described here.
(This could be anywhere from 1-5 separate synagogues, but that there were multiple synagogues and even more than one hellenist synagogue in Jerusalem is also attested by extrabiblical historians as well as archeology.
I lean towards it being a couple of synagogues.)
Briefly, to get your bearings with the places mentioned, let me show you a couple of maps.
[Map of the Roman Empire]
[Map of Paul’s first two missionary journeys that shows the eastern Mediterranean more closely]
So while doing charity work with hellenist widows, Stephen has opportunities to share the gospel of Jesus, which clearly he does.
In fact, it’s the message that generates the conflict, not the miracles.
(same was true with Jesus himself…) This effective ministry does cause a stir, but not so much the healing as the preaching.
It is evidently what Stephen is teaching that causes others to want to debate him, then oppose him.
So vv.
8-10 in context show us that Stephen is a model servant of Jesus Christ.
(he fully surrendered his life to Christ, he clearly walked in the Spirit instead of the flesh, he cooperated as a member of a healthy community, and continued to be faithful in the little things while seizing additional opportunities to serve God and advance the gospel.)
So too, Stephen is a model for responding to attacks against the message and the messenger…
Stephen becomes Stephen because he defends the message of fulfillment and salvation in Jesus Christ.
Spirit-filled ministry draws attention to the message more than the messenger.
But when opponents fail at attacking the message of the gospel, they must resort to attacking the messengers of the gospel.
Stephen’s Ministry Stirs Debate (vv.
Debating Stephen doesn’t go in their favor.
Spiritual wisdom is imparted to those who are spiritual, who are made alive by God.
We learn it from God and lean into it by knowing more of God and praying for him to give us skill to implement his will.
And Stephen’s debate with them is also marked by power and authority given in the Spirit that his detractors do not have.
As we said, they resort to attacking the messenger.
Devout Hellenistic Jews Stir Up Trouble for Stephen (vv. 11-14)
What approach do they use to try to take down Stephen? (have him accused of blasphemy that will get him brought before the Sanhedrin, v. 12)
What kind of accusations are they leveling against him?
11, 13-14)
Two basic categories: blasphemy against God and Moses = against this holy place (the temple) and the law = Jesus destroy the temple & change customs Moses handed down
Luke explains that the accusation of blasphemy is false, so how might they be twisting what Stephen was actually saying?
*** (fulfillment & salvation)
Here we have another way in which Stephen’s experience epitomizes what is to be expected.
There will be spiritual opposition to God’s Spirit-empowered servants.
Stephen was so becoming, and yet he became a chief target for those who opposed the church.
Wait, Stephen was so becoming as a follower of Jesus, which is why he became a chief target for Satanic opposition.
(But Satan hasn’t learned his lesson, and neither have those who oppose God’s people.
Trying to kill Jesus literally fulfilled the plan of God.
Trying to silence the Church by intimidating or even killing Jesus’ servants only serves to give the gospel a megaphone and to magnify it with clarity.)
In this way, trouble for Stephen doesn’t shake Stephen.
Stephen becomes Stephen because attacks against the messenger cannot shake his calm assurance in God.
In fact, we’ll see that all this Trouble for Stephen actually Stirs Gospel Opportunity.
Why do I say that he had calm assurance?
Look again at Luke’s description of him in v. 15, as everyone present is looking at him intently.
What do they notice?
What could Luke mean that he has the face of an angel?
I’m convinced that it means Stephen has calm assurance because he is near to God, he is authorized by God, and he is innocent before God.
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