Continuing our study of the Church built by Jesus Christ, I would like to reflect just a bit on service and sacrifice. Throughout the New Testament we find examples of service and sacrifice in the name of Jesus for the Church. Historically we know that all of the Apostles, except John, were martyred for the cause of Christ, but it was Steven who set the standard for all followers of Christ. Today I believe the True Church is approaching an unprecedented time of persecution, and I believe much of that persecution will come from within the “church” (Institutional, Denominational, Emergent, etc…) which is apostate. Knowing this persecution is to come, we must continue to serve and be prepared to sacrifice just as True Christians have since the beginning of the church age.
After Pentecost, the Church experienced tremendous growth in Jerusalem. Thousands of new converts were added to the Apostles and disciples who were followers of Christ before and after the crucifixion. To the Jewish leaders, it seemed that this group known to be followers of “The Way,” was becoming a threat to Judaism, and the control it had over the nation of Israel. The Sanhedrin had made threats against the Apostles, but their commands were not heeded. As we look at Acts chapters 6 & 7 , we find this situation exploding as a result of the Apostles’ solution to a growing concern within the young Church.
By Acts 6 the Church had grown to between 25,000 and 30,000 believers, and as a result of this rapid growth and development there arose some internal strife and discord that had the potential to hinder or arrest the growth of the Church. It seemed to some that there was an inequity in the daily distribution to those needy saints within the church. The Hebrew widows were having their needs met, while the Hellenistic widows were being overlooked (Acts 6:1). Because rumblings were beginning to be heard within the body of believers, immediate attention was required to keep the young Church on track and focused on its mission.
The solution of the Apostles was for the congregation to select from among themselves “seven men of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom,” who would be commissioned to oversee the daily ministry to the needy saints. Through the administration of these men, the benevolent work of the church would proceed with fairness and equity, all those in need would receive assistance. It was a good plan. It would allow the apostles to continue devoting themselves to “the ministry of the Word” (Acts 6:4). After all, “It is not desirable for us to neglect the Word of God in order to serve tables” (Acts 6:2). The people “were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching” (Acts 2:42), and that vital ministry of the Word could not suffer neglect due to distractions over more material concerns. The seven men would be assigned responsibility for these tasks associated with daily ministry so that the Apostles could remain focused on the Word.
This plan “found approval with the whole congregation” (Acts 6:5), and they chose seven leaders for this ministry. The first name listed in the biblical record was Stephen, “a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 6:5). This probably was significant; noting that he was first choice, for Stephen was a remarkable man. It is readily apparent why his fellow disciples chose him. He was vocal, willing to share the good news of God’s grace with those about him. He was also “full of grace and power, performing great wonders and signs among the people” (Acts 6:8).
Stephen was a “Hellenist”(a Greek speaking Jew from outside of Israel) from Cilicia in Asia… modern day Turkey… as was Saul of Tarsus… his understanding and command of the Law suggests (as early Church history holds) that like Saul he was a student of Gamaliel… the foremost Jewish scholar of the Law and a member of the Sanhedrin. Tradition, and evidence of the age of Philip and the other five also suggest that Stephen was younger than Saul by as many as 10 years… and Saul was about 30 at this time… Stephen had a servant’s heart and a desire to share the Gospel.
Yet, by the end of Acts 7 Stephen is being stoned to death. Why?! Considering the scriptural record of his character, why was he murdered by a mob?
The first reason that led to Stephen’s death was that he spoke in the Synagogues and taught about the prophecies that were fulfilled by Jesus. He became well-known as a follower of “The Way” by the people of Jerusalem. Had he chosen to do as most believers do today, go to church but not get involved, he probably would not have drawn so much attention to himself. Stephen however saw his service to God in a much more serious light. He realized there were people all around him who were lost. They had no relationship with Jesus Christ. They needed to hear the gospel, the message of God’s saving grace. As a student of the Law, he knew there were those who had been a part of, or at least were aware of, the events leading to the crucifixion of God’s Son, who needed to hear that it was the Christ that they had hung on a cross. They had murdered their Messiah. So, Stephen decided to speak Truth. He went to the Temple and into the streets and proclaimed the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Stephen could not be like most believers are today, and sit comfortably in church uninvolved. He was sold out for Christ, committed to the cause, and willing to stand before the world in defense of the Gospel.
What a tremendous example, we need to be like Stephen and speak Truth! In these “Last Days” it is important for us to realize that because Jesus is soon to return for His Bride, we must stand up before a lost and dying world and proclaim the Gospel. And, we must be willing to defend the gospel against those who would pervert or alter it for their own gain. When confronted by Truth, false prophets will lash out in hostility against the True Church and True Christians, and we must be grounded well enough in the Word to Stand against their attacks.
The second reason that led to Stephen’s death was that he spoke with such knowledge, conviction, reasoning and passion; that those who opposed him were completely incapable of refuting his words. He was using the Old Testament writings to teach Truth by the power of the Holy Spirit in his life. Those who taught Jewish Law and those of the Sanhedrin Council (including Saul) could not withstand the Truth which he spoke, and so had to resort to lies and deceit to oppose him. One of the reasons for which the number of disciples was “increasing greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were becoming obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7) was the passionate evangelism of Stephen.
The record in Acts tells us that some of the Jews “rose up and argued with Stephen” (Acts 6:9). And, when they decided to confront him in public believing they could discredit him and turn the people back to their own doctrines and practices, they failed miserably. Acts tells us “they were unable to cope with the wisdom and the spirit with which he was speaking” (Acts 6:10). Stephen was preaching God’s Truth and they were powerless to contradict his teaching. They tried to disgrace Stephen, and only succeeded in degrading themselves. In speaking Truth, Stephen was gaining converts. This was more than the Jewish leaders could stand.
Truth can never be overcome by anything or anyone who stands against it. Truth is always Truth and cannot fail. So the Jews attacked Stephen with lies. “Then they secretly persuaded some men to say, ‘We have heard Stephen speak words of blasphemy against Moses and against God'” (Acts 6:11). And “they produced false witnesses” who told more lies, probably before the Sanhedrin (Acts 6:13).
Do you recognize this strategy? They are repeating the same tactic they used against Jesus. If you can’t defeat Truth, attack the one who brings the message of Truth. Since they couldn’t counter Truth, they attacked Stephen bodily. The only thing they were interested in was shutting Stephen up. But, after the false charges had been made against him, Stephen was allowed to present his defense before the Sanhedrin.
However, Stephen went on the offensive. He gave them a history lesson out of their own scriptures; he presented them again with Truth. Stephen spoke again with conviction and without fear, he didn’t care about the consequences, he just preached Truth. Steven said they were stiff-necked, uncircumcised in heart and ears, and as always resisting the Holy Spirit, again, no fear. He called them murderers and betrayers of the righteous, just like their fathers were! This eventually led to Stephens stoning. “And they stirred up the people, the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him and dragged him away” (Acts 6:12).
Stephen’s boldness before the Sanhedrin did not go over so well with the Jewish leaders, his accusers, and the people who had already been stirred up into a frenzy against him. “Now when they heard this they were cut to the quick, and they gnashed their teeth at him” (Acts 7:54). They were mad that he dared to speak against them and they began grinding their teeth in rage, because he had spoken Truth. “They cried out with a loud voice, covered their ears, and rushed upon him with one impulse” (Acts 7:57). They rushed upon Stephen, drove him outside the city gates, picked up the closest large rocks they could throw, and murdered this young disciple of Jesus.
Interestingly, Steven saw “the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:56). At Christ’s ascension, it is said He sits at the right hand of the Father, yet Stephen sees Him Standing! Is it recognition, reception, or respect? Perhaps all three… “well done thou good and faithful servant”. As Stephen was stoned, he called “Lord Jesus receive my spirit” and he knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin” (Acts 7:59&60). Stephen’s trial, and actions at his death mirrored those of his Savior. A just man faced an unjust death. And, what about Saul? What did Steven’s death mean in the life of this young Rabbi? I believe Steven’s Life and Death would become the example of Service to the man who would become Paul. I believe it should be an example to us all. Oh that Jesus would be standing to welcome me home to Glory… will He Stand to greet you?
We are all called to be servants… We are all called to speak the truth… We all may be required to sacrifice something for the cause of Christ… don’t be content to sit on the sidelines… live large… get involved in the battle… “for great is your reward in heaven”(Luke 6:23)… serve Jesus and you will hear Him say; “well done, thou good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:23). Because we are living in the Last Days and; Jesus is Coming Soon!