Imagine your dying words to those who are killing you; “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60). None of Stephen’s accusers could lay one personal charge against him. All he did was proclaim the truth that had been given to Israel hundreds of years before through the “fathers” and “prophets.”
Note that Stephen was not asking the Lord to forgive them for their rebellion against God and His truth revealed in the Scripture. That charge stood. He was simply the spokesman that the Spirit selected for that moment in time to convict them with truth. God was confident in Stephen’s character, knowing he would be faithful no matter what the cost; and he was!
Where did Stephen get the idea to forgive his accusers of his own death? We only need to look back a short time to the crucifixion of Jesus. As He suffered on the cross between two criminals, Jesus spoke to God and said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). The magnanimous grace that flowed from Jesus’ lips was flowing from Stephen’s, who realized the ignorance of the murderers.
So often we look at those who oppose and harm us as persons who are attacking us personally, when they are doing so for the truth we proclaim and stand for. Look past the personal elements and reflect the heart of God in forgiveness. This is how the enemy is defeated, even if we die!
Down through the centuries, martyrs for Christ, those who have stood unswervingly for the truth they loved and lived, experienced seeing the glory of Jesus as they passed from this scene in severe pain. I can’t imagine what Stephen went through. Just before the stones started hitting his body, he turned his gaze away from those who rejected his message and those who “were enraged, and …[grinding] their teeth at him” (Acts 7:54).
I am sure Stephen knew what was coming. Instead of thinking about the painful death he would experience, and still “full of the Holy Spirit, [he] gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God” (7:55). This is NOT a pain-coping mechanism. It is the souls enraptured with the glory of what he had just been testifying about.
This is a man who is consumed by the whole plan and purpose of God. It had been missed by the religious elite. Not only did the Word of God expose their sins, they hated that a man who was not ‘one of them’ so effectively used Scripture to confront their hypocrisy. Now this same man was reveling in the joy of what he saw.
It has been said that ‘we die as we have lived.’ The Word of God was very real and living to Stephen, and he lived it in serving others, though for a short time. This powerful witness became another inspiration for the Early Church to stand faithful to the truth. Are we living like this?
If we read Acts 7 with any sense of gloating over Stephen’s ability to handle Scripture in a powerful way that convicted his accusers, we need to look carefully in the mirror at ourselves. Are we ever “stiff-necked…uncircumcised in heart and ears…always resisting the Holy Spirit” (7:51)?
As these religious leaders were rightly guilty of hypocrisy, there are habits we have learned from our “fathers” that are just traditions, but do not have their roots in the principles of Scripture. These men who were listening to Stephen, felt the conviction of truth, and rather than accepting the truth, they “were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him” (7:54).
I well remember times in my life when a brother in Christ spoke faithfully to me from God’s Word and I did not like the conviction I felt. It takes humility before God to realize and accept that I have not been following truth as reveal in Scripture. When I did, there was a sense of relief that I had allowed God’s truth to change my heart and bring it into alignment with His.
Are you struggling with some tension in your heart between traditions that you know does not line up with God’s truth? You are probably worried about the expectations of those who know you. This I understand. Paul more than anyone knew this tension; “For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ” (Galatians 1:10).
It is far more important to be assured that you are pleasing God as a servant of Christ than meeting the expectations of men!
If anything speaks of the character of Stephen, it was his knowledge of Scripture. From Acts 7:2-53, we see that he had a clear and detailed reservoir of the knowledge of the Old Testament. Through that, he was able to paint a picture of Israel’s history beginning from Abraham right down to their present day. Along with that outline, Stephen began to apply the principles of truth in the Scriptures to the spiritual condition of his accusers.
I think Stephen was also taking a page from the ministry of Jesus. When the Pharisees tried to trip up Jesus with a question about the law, He responded with a question about “the son of David” and then quoted from Psalm 110. Then Matthew comments, “And no one was able to answer Him a word, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions” (22:46).
Paul assured his son in the faith by reminding him of the valuable training he received from his mother and grandmother; “from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:15).
Paul calls the word of God “the sword of the Spirit” (Ephesians 6:17). Being able to wield this tool requires that you are familiar with it and are able to use it under His control and power. Without the Spirit, the Bible will be used out of context and for selfish means.
There is so much to learn from Stephen’s face. Before he was asked to defend himself against the false accusations that were laid against him, the trouble-makers “secretly instigated men who said, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God” (Acts 6:11). That in itself was a serious charge. We know from Stephen’s defense in chapter seven, this was not true.
As the litany of charges are hurled at him, Stephen remains composed. In fact, “gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel” (6:15). There is only one explanation for such behavior. The character we have seen in this man (“full of the Spirit and of wisdom” – 6:3) was the reason and motivation behind Stephen’s behavior.
This raises a question for us who have the Holy Spirit living within us; why do our faces often tell a much different story? Since the Spirit dwells in us, is there anything we lack, or are we hindering the Spirit from producing the same Spirit-filled confidence and joy that makes the face shine? This is a question each of us who know the Lord must answer. One thing we know is the Spirit’s desire to display the wisdom of Christ in us through His power. We are at no disadvantage!
What is your face telling others?
“And Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people. Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called)…rose up and disputed with Stephen. But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking” (Acts 6:8–10).
How can these two character qualities silence opposers? They come from the indwelling Holy Spirit who moves in those submitted to His will. Grace is a divine supply that comes from God alone to enable us to do what would be impossible without it. Persons who are outside the work of grace cannot understand both the work and words of grace that come from God. “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him” (1 Corinthians 2:14).
In the same chapter, Paul wrote to Corinth that his “message was not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God” (2:4-5).
God uses the gospel of pure grace to show His power. It cannot be humanly understood. The simplicity of Stephen’s message of grace silenced his opposers. That is power! As we will see in the next chapter (Acts 7), the conviction in Stephen’s message drove them to stone him. That was the only way they could silence his words and his power.
Will our messages convict the hearers to repentance by its power?
Among the seven men mentioned in yesterday’s blog, was a man named Stephen. He was “full of faith and of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 6:5). As these men humbly went about their new assignment, “the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly” (7).
What would happen in our western churches if we placed a biblical emphasis on character as the Early Church did? The growth of Christianity in America is struggling to stay at 0.5% while Iran is about 19.6%. What are we doing wrong, or what are we not doing which persecuted places are experiencing? (See Joshua Project: https://joshuaproject.net/countries/IR).
It is time we place a biblical emphasis on what we preach and the way we conduct ourselves. It will require repentance through humility. Hudson Taylor once said, “God’s work done God’s way will not lack God’s support.”
Not long after the Church was born at Pentecost, “the disciples increased in number” which brought new challenges to leadership as to how they were going to handle new and growing needs among the disciples. Through the guidance of Christ, the Head of the Church, the twelve apostles asked the Church to “pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty” (Acts 6:1, 4). Note that the apostles asked the congregation to make the selection based on certain character requirements.
Both the character requirements and asking the congregation are rarely done today. Why is this?
The devotion of the Early Church had centered around biblical teaching, fellowship together so they knew each other, making Christ their center in the breaking of bread, and prayer. There was a unity in Christ that not only held them together, but formed a unity in what really mattered.
This unity made way for the Spirit to work powerfully through them so that persecution and resistance only strengthened their dependence on the Lord and a desire for more boldness (4:29-31). Even when the sin of lying tried to creep in and cause disunity, it was quickly met with powerful, Spirit-filled confrontation. This further unified the Church and “great fear came upon the whole church and upon all who heard of these things” (5:11).
Could our testimony to the world be becoming weaker because we are not holding to the central principles that established the Church?
In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer compares God’s grace to a “treasure hidden in the field. For the sake of it, a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price for which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble. It is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows Him.
Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock.
Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life” (page 45).
There is much more on this subject, but I want to point out that we usually think of the cost of grace from God’s side. But it is costly for us if we have received the call, “Come follow me” (Matthew 19:21). While there is a cost to follow Jesus, it is a privilege to follow Him, having been called by Him, I will pay the price to partake of this grace. Will you pay the price?
Over 19 times in the New Testament (NT), the concept of obedience is used in different ways, but always for the same result; that our lives are brought more and more into alignment with the will of God. The only way we learn the value of God’s truth is through putting it into practice
Here are a few ways that the word “obedience” is used in the NT:
Every form of obedience that God requires begins with authority He has established. “For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Romans 13:2). Wisdom is in recognizing His authority.
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