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Acts #21 (chapter 6:3-15)
The Book of Acts
Stephen: The First Martyr
Acts 6:3–15
We return tonight to the 6th chapter of Acts. Last time we looked at the first seven verses of the chapter and saw a little bit about how the original church was organized to do ministry.  Tonight we pick up the story at verse 8
verse 8-15
Just as a reminder, Stephen makes his first appearance in Scripture back in verse 5 where he is selected to help with the distributing of food and resources to the Greek widows.  So he was a Greek-speaking believer in Jesus Christ who had belonged to a Jewish synagogue in a foreign land and has now come to Christ. 
And just to see what happens, notice verse 1 of chapter 7.  I other words, what is your response to the charges that have been brought against you?  And his answer is the first 53 verse of chapter 7.  And when he finished, they killed him, and we'll look at the details of that in coming studies.   
What an amazing man was Stephen.  He was not a deacon in the purest form.  That office is established at a later time.  But he did act and serve in a deaconly capacity because he was put in charge of serving tables. 
Neither was he as apostle, but he did signs and wonders. 
He wasn't a prophet, but he was a great preacher.  Not a deacon, but a servant.  Not an apostle, but a miracle worker.  Not a prophet, but a great preacher. And as the first martyr, he apparently had a very short career.  This is the only recorded sermon he ever preached, and there were no positive results. 
As far as we can tell, there’s no record that anybody was saved or anybody believed, and yet it was the catalyst that caused the church to move in the next step of the Great Commission.  Again, it may have been his death that began the career of Saul who became Paul.  And it was his death that served as the catalyst for the spread and expansion of the gospel to the Gentile world.    
It was because of his martyrdom and the persecution that was launched at because of his martyrdom that the believers scattered.  And that was the purpose of God in his martyrdom.  Remember, Jesus had said, “When the Holy Spirit comes, you will be witnesses unto Me in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the world.” 
So what was going to send them into Judea?  What was going to send them into Samaria?  What was going to send them into the world?  Not a missionary mission trip or an announcement from the pulpit, but persecution, martyrdom and the threat of death.  The Lord indeed does work in mysterious ways, doesn't he? 
That's why I believe we are very often omitting a very important component of prayer when we pray for people to be healed and delivered and their loads to be lightened. 
Very often, it is the pain and suffering and sickness and sorrow that God uses to advance kingdom causes.  And in this amazing turn of events that Satan intended to use to quieten the witness of these new Christians, God uses the death of Stephen to rocket the gospel to the farthest reaches of the world!
Everything we know about Stephen is right here in this text of Scripture.  And even though we don't know much about him, we do know, maybe more than anything else, he was a man of courage.  And because of that courage, he put himself in a position to lose his life.  But he was so committed to being faithful he paid the ultimate price for his commitment.
From this brief text, let me point out four things about his life.  First of all,
1. His Choosing
Acts 6:3
They’re to look for, “men of good reputation who are full of the Spirit and of wisdom.”  Stephen was one of those men.  So we know that he was full of the Spirit, full of wisdom, and verse 5 adds that "he was full of faith". 
So when the first church looked for the best qualified leaders, and they want seven of them out of the thousands of Christians now, Stephen was one of the seven.  What that tell us is the church held him in high regard. 
And keep in mind, here is a man that the Jerusalem church probably hadn't known very long.  He was a Jew from outside the land of Israel.  I think it right to assume that the early church would have been very  careful in its choosing, selecting those only of the highest spiritual quality.   And Stephen makes the cut. 
So the people choose the seven.  They present them to the apostles for validation and verification.  And if we didn't know anything else, if would be enough to tell us of his heart and ministry and spirit just to know that out of all the thousands and thousands of men in the church at Jerusalem, he’s the first one on the list.  
The second thing I want to take note of is
2. His Character
Again, looking up to verse 3, I think we can assume that he, like the rest, was of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, but specifically it says about him in verse 5, “He is a man full of faith”.
He is filled up with faith.  That is to say his life is dominated by faith.  He walks by faith.  He is controlled by faith.  The idea of full is total control.
When you say, for example, “Someone is filled with rage or filled with anger or filled with madness or filled with joy or filled with love,” you mean that is a dominating emotion.  That is a dominating force at that point in the person’s life.  That is a consuming thing.  It is unmixed.  It is unmitigated.  Things which control are the things that would be contained in the notion of being filled.  He is filled with faith.  So what do we know about his faith?  What did he believe?  If he is full of faith, what did he believe?  Well, I can tell you what he believed because Scripture tells us what he believed.    
Go to chapter 7, and let’s pick it up at verse 2.
Acts 7;2-3
Stephen is quoting Genesis 12 and 13.  That tells me Stephen believed the Bible.  Specifically, since it's all he had, he believed in the authenticity and validity of the Old Testament.  He believed that God determined and God ruled history, and further that God wrote history.  This Sunday evening we're going to watch "Is Genesis History?"  It's a fascinating look at the creation story and how it is documented through science and modern techniques. 
But I can tell you, Stephen didn't need any of that.  He believed in the God revealed in the Old Testament, and what that God reveals about hsitory and he unfolds that all the way through the sermon.
Then, move down to verse 52 and you find out something else he believed. 
Acts 7:52
He believed Jesus was the Messiah.  He believed in Jesus as the righteous one of God, and he believed that His death was the pivotal point in which history turned.  They killed the righteous one. 
He also believed that Jesus was risen from the dead.  How do we know that he believed that? 
verse 55
He believed in the Messiah.  He believed the Messiah had risen and ascended.  He believed the Messiah was in heaven.  He believed the Messiah cared for him.  He believed the Messiah, the Lord Jesus, was waiting to receive him. 
verse 59
He also believed in the Holy Spirit.
verse 51
This is what he believed.  He was full of faith, and he believed in all these great spiritual realities that he delineates in this great sermon.
He believed so strongly in the God of the Old Testament and the Old Testament, he believed so strongly in the Lord Jesus Christ, His death and resurrection, and his own hope of eternal life and welcome into heaven that he bet his life on it.  He put his life on the line, so much that he believed that he was willing to be stoned to death.  He knew the price that could be paid for being as bold as he was willing to be.
Stephen was full faith. 
We see also that he was full of the Spirit
It is seen early in chapter 6 as a qualification for being selected to the work and it's seen at the end of chapter 7, verse 55 as an evidence of his life. 
He is totally controlled by and yielded to the Holy Spirit.  This is a man who believes in the truth so passionately that he will die for it.  This is a man who is so confident in the ministry of the Holy Spirit to care for him, to comfort him, to strengthen him, to bring him to a glorious end, that he has complete confidence in the Holy Spirit.
He is also a man who is full of wisdom. 
Acts 6:3
In fact, his wisdom is so profound, it is so beyond argument that when he speaks, his enemies cannot withstand what he says.  And in fury and anger they kill him because they can’t answer his arguments.
Furthermore, verse 8 says, he is full of grace
What is that?  Well, it could be the grace of salvation, but we all have that fully.  It could be the grace that comes in persecution, but I think it’s something else.  I think it’s not the grace that he received, but rather the grace that he gave. 
In Old Testament terms, he was full of "loving kindness.”  Why do I say that? 
Acts 7: 60
While they’re stoning him, he falls on his knees and begs God not to punish them for what their doing.
What kind of tenderheartedness is this?  No anger, no vengeance, no violence, no retaliation.  I'll tell you what kind it is:  It is the grace of God.
What an amazing man.  This kind of grace comes out of full faith.  This kind of grace is a product of the Holy Spirit.   He was full of faith, the Spirit, wisdom and grace, then we see in verse 8, he was full of power
Acts 6:8
He is performing great wonders and signs among the people.  Like the apostles, he is actually doing miracles as a validation of the message he preaches.  This is before there was a New Testament.  How did you know if anybody was a legitimate speaker for God?  If he had miraculous power.
What an amazing, amazing man.  We see his choosing and his character, then notice
3. His Courage
verse 9
I guess one of the most surprising things we ever encounter is that good and genuine people are so hated by the world.  Here is this man, full of the Holy Spirit, full of faith, full of wisdom, full of power and full of grace, with this love to reach people with the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ who comes face to face with the hostile world. 
He preached Jesus as Messiah to the Hellenistic Jews and it took tremendous courage to do that.  But this is his mission field. 
The apostles are going to the Jerusalem Jews.  Paul later will go to the Gentiles in the farthest reached of the world.  And Stephen will go to the Jews in Gentile lands.  
And notice, he starts right there in Jerusalem where synagogues for these pilgrims existed.  There were communities of Grecian Jews who had resettled in the land of Israel.  When there were feasts and festivals and when people came on pilgrimages to Jerusalem, they would find their way to these synagogues.  These synagogues functioned perhaps in the language of the country of the people who made them.  So that’s his mission field. 
After all, he’s one of them.  He is introduced earlier in the chapter as one of them.  All those names in verse 5 are Greek names.  These Greek Jews were chosen to meet the needs of the Grecian Hellenistic widows.
So he goes to the place where he can reach his people.  The place is the synagogue.  The meeting place is where the Jews gathered.  In fact, this particular group is identified for us. 
It is the Synagogue of the Freedman.  What is that?  Pompeii, the Roman general, had carried off large numbers of Jews as prisoners to Rome in 63 B.C. and sold them as slaves. 
Most of them eventually found their freedom and came back to their homeland.  Very likely, the synagogue of the Freedmen is a synagogue that was developed by freed Roman slaves who had returned to their own city to worship.
There also are mentioned Cyrenians, a city in Africa in the Libyan area.  They had a large Jewish colony there.  They also participated in a synagogue in Jerusalem.  Then Alexandrians, the capital of Egypt, founded by Alexander the Great.  A huge Jewish community there and a great library of many Jewish scholars there.
Cilicia is mentioned, a district in the settlement known as Asia Minor near Syria, large Jewish colony.  By the way, the principal city of Cilicia and that Jewish colony was Tarsus.  Saul was from Tarsus, and was the most prominent member of that synagogue.  Here’s where Saul probably functioned in the synagogue of the people from Cilicia. 
Then there were some from Asia, meaning the western part of Asia Minor.  The chief city was Ephesus.  So you have five groups.  Maybe there were five different synagogues.  Some think so.  Maybe there were three synagogues mixed and maybe there was only one synagogue, and they were all in the same one, and they all spoke some Greek well enough to interact.  We don’t know, but to them, Stephen went.  And what did he do?  He rose up.  I don’t think he was an invited speaker.  I don’t think they lined him up for a weekend conference.
He rose up and argued with them and they argued back with him.  He took his place there and spoke, and it created no small stir, but verse 10, they were unable to cope with the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking.  Of course they were unable to cope.  They couldn't argue against what he said. 
By the way, I think it highly likely that one of the ones leading the argument against him was none other than Saul, who would certainly have been great at arguing and making his case.  Two brilliant minds, Stephen and Saul, battling over divine truth and Stephen won.  Why?  Was he a greater debater than Saul?  No, but he had the truth on his side.
So about what did they argue and debate?  The exact subject of the debate we don’t know, but we can guess.  I would guess it was a debate between the old covenant and the new covenant.  It was a debate over the identity of Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God.  It was a debate over the role of the law.  It was a debate about salvation by grace. 
And Stephen won the debate because of his unparalleled wisdom and because the Spirit was upon him.  But the victory came at great cost.
verse 11
That tells us he was arguing against the old covenant.  He was arguing against the Judaistic misinterpretation of the Law of Moses.  He was also arguing, no doubt, for the deity of Christ.  By dismissing the saving power of the Law of Moses, he was seen as blaspheming Moses.  By identifying Jesus as God, he was blaspheming God in their minds. 
Now, this is a man who has taken the message to the people.  He walked right into the fire and declared to them that the Law of Moses cannot save.  It can only condemn.  Maybe this is where Paul for the first time heard that, “By the deeds of the law, no flesh will be justified.”
Maybe this is where the apostle Paul heard for the first time that all the fullness of the Godhead dwelt bodily in Jesus Christ.  To these Jews, these were blasphemous words, blasphemy against Moses, treading on very sacred soil, blasphemy against God by saying Jesus is equal to God. 
So they stirred the people, the elders, the scribes.  These agitated Hellenistic Jews left their synagogues and started stirring up the rabble that Stephen was a blasphemer, Stephen was a blasphemer.  Does that sound familiar?  It’s exactly what happened to our Lord Jesus.
Now the people, for the most part have been watching the church as it grew and developed, and they were impressed.  In fact, we learned back in chapter 2 that the apostles in the early church had favor with all the people.  There bringing their sick folk so the shadow of Peter can fall on them and be healed. 
They respected them even in chapter 5 when Ananias and Sapphira were killed in the church. 
And I think it safe to say the crowd is indifferent, perhaps curious, but impressed until now. 
But now come the word that one of these churchmen, Stephen, is a blasphemer against God and Moses and it agitates the people and it agitates the leaders and the agitation reaches such a level that they drag him away to appear before the Sanhedrin.
Verse 13
Again, that tells us something about what the debate was about.  They accused him also of saying that, “This Nazarene – ” that’s a scornful epithet, “ – this Nazarene, Jesus, will destroy this place – ” the temple “ - and alter the customs which Moses handed down to us.’”
So now we understand the picture.  He’s preaching about Judaism being replaced with Christianity.  And think about the courage it must have taken to preach that message.  After all, Stephen knows what they’ve done to the Lord.  He knows they have already imprisoned and beaten the apostles.  He knows what’s at stake, and he knows that it is the Jews who will perpetrate these persecutions.
But his courage is undiminished.  I don’t know how they found this guy out of the thousands of men in the church, but what a remarkable man he is. 
In fact, this is what he says to them in
Acts 7:51
You killers of the Righteous One!  Wow.  This not friendship evangelism.  This man is heroic.  We see it in his choosing out of all that could have been chosen, and he heads the list of those who are full of all the necessary spiritual realities.  We see it in his character.  We see it in his courage.  Finally, it shows up in
4. His Countenance
Acts 6:15
They're all looking at him.  He is the center of attention.  And all of a sudden, his face lights up like an angel!  Now remember, they are accusing him of blasphemy.  They’re calling him evil.  They’re saying he is denouncing God and Moses, and he is standing there looking angelic.  His appearance is as the pure holiness of an angel. 
What does this mean?  It's not that he had a halo or wings.  Instead, I see it as nothing less than the reflection of the glory of God.  Later, in chapter 12, we'll read about a light shining in Peter's jail cell because an angel shows up. 
But this isn’t an actual angel.  Stephen just reminds them up the face of an angel.  So what did he look like?  I don't know!  I've never seen an angel, and I don't suppose many if any of them had. 
But in their minds, he looked heavenly.  He looked as if he were pure and holy and virtuous.  All of his power in the Holy Spirit, all of his wisdom in the Holy Spirit, all of his grace in the Holy Spirit, all of his faith, all of it came out on his face.  He looked angelic. 
Only once in all of recorded history has God ever put His glory on the face of a man and that’s in Exodus 33 when He put it on the face of Moses.  After Moses saw the glory of God, his face was shining.  Somehow or another, He was reflecting the glory of God and for a moment, people could see it! 
And something like that is happening here as Stephen is preaching.  While the Jews are accusing Stephen of being a blasphemer, God puts a glow on his face. 
And in that moment, he stands, as Moses did before his people, in shining purity with the mark of divine favor on his face. 
We have only these two occurrences of men's faces shining with the glory of God.  One represents the law, the other grace.  Do you remember what happened with Moses?  After a while, the glory faded.  But as far as we know, Stephen went out shining!
In an unparalleled experience, as evil men were accusing him of blasphemy and eventually stoned him to death, the glory of God light up the face of Stephen and he was the heavens opened and Jesus Christ Himself standing to welcome him home.
In those two men and their experiences we see a vital gospel truth.  There is no salvation in the law of God.  It appeared for a little while, given by God, served its purpose and faded away as the light of the gospel begin to shine in human hearts. 
That message still needs to be shared.  That's why God is still looking for men and women who can serve Him in His church, who can be chosen out of the thousands, who demonstrate the character of a Stephen, full of faith, full of grace, full of the Holy Spirit, full of wisdom, who stand with courage and conviction to share the gospel. 
And through them, God waits to demonstrate His glory, not visibly, but in the calm, peaceful, tranquil, almost transcendent trust that comes through in the most hateful and violent of circumstances.   God help us to shine!
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