Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”

     At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.

     While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep. And Saul approved of their killing him.

     On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. – Acts 7:55-8:1

     The story of the early church is fantastic. God was moving! People heard about Jesus, people believed in Jesus because of all that had happened and what was happening. The Spirit of God was moving and so were the people. The actions of the early church were fantastic and something to strive for.

     We remember all the great things that have happened in our live, in our church, and in our community. We celebrate what was accomplished by us. But, this celebration and excitement often comes at a cost. We leave out some portions of the history.

     Thankfully the Bible doesn’t. It definitely shows some of the amazing things that God did and what the believers were doing, but it also showed a lot of issues that the people struggled through.

     The early church struggled with lying in order to keep up with the Jones’s of giving. The Church lost people, literally people died because they lied. And, in the immediate context of the main person we are studying today, Stephen, there was an entire group of people intentionally neglected by the Church.

     I say intentionally because there were “those” people. Those people. Those people were the Hellenistic Jews. But, they were Jews. The problem was that they spoke Greek instead of Hebrew or Aramaic as their native language. There was a tangible tension in the community of believers. It was not a simple whim or complaint.

     Food was not being given to the Widows, those without income and provisions. The broken. More than that, some of these widows were probably away from their homes being rooted in the Hellenistic culture and not Jerusalem’s. Some had joined the church in Jerusalem even though their homes were far from there. Hellenistic Jews were from the diaspora they were from areas spread out across the Roman Empire. 

     Their need was real, and the Church had failed to care for them. Whether it was intentional or accidental due to language barriers, contact points, or lack of prominence in the church culture the church had failed to care. The people of the church had seen this, and the church was in danger of a divide so soon after it had flourished.[1]

    In the same steps of Stephen and the other Deacons we need to…

Care for those who don’t fit into the community.

     It’s Mother’s Day! And, the people who were neglected were the women. They were the women that did not belong. They were the women who had no one to care for them. They were the women who were alone, and now left alone by the church.

     We are the church and we must not leave people alone. Take time today to reach out to the mothers or those who have been motherly toward you. Celebrate and care for the people in our area who are alone. Find ways and make an effort to go to those who are different and not easy to relate with. Those were the people that Stephen went to. Who can you go to? Who can I go to?

     Stephen may have been caring for people who were not the typical sort in Jerusalem, but it was that same people group that attacked him. It was not the Jews from Jerusalem that argued with Stephen. The people who stirred up the attacks and started the process that lead to Stephen’s death were Jews from across the Roman empire.

     How great is it that the very people that initially attacked Stephen because of his message, were the root cause of the message of Christ going to their homelands? So, both the plans of the attackers of Stephen and the Sanhedrin’s eventual decision to murder Stephen produced the opposite outcome they desired. They failed miserably and God won triumphantly.

God uses some of the darkest moments to shine brightest and do the most good.

     See the Sanhedrin was meant to be good and God honoring. But, the Sanhedrin became a ruling class, the High Priest and the priests, that desired to keep their rule.[2] They utilized the Jewish traditions to keep the Jewish people obedient while also secularizing the Jewish Culture.[3] They were primarily Sadducees who discredited the spiritual side of the Law. The Sadducees instead used the Law to focus on today. But, their power came from two local points wholly outside of today.

     First the Law, which was their weapon, was what gave them status through priestly rights and the authority to speak to the people. And, their place of power came from the Temple where they ruled.[4] The land may have been invaded and occupied by the Romans and pagans, but the Temple was their power and their stronghold over the people.

     Thus, the accusations of Stephen attacking both the Law and the ‘holy place’ was an affront on their power and leadership.[5] Worse, Stephen gave the power and leadership to a man they had helped hand over and pressure to be executed by the very people they hated.

     Stephen thus stood against what those around him found sacred and what they found their power in. Instead Stephen recognized that power and authority were Jesus’s not the worlds. The places are not the priority, and the Law was not the focus, God becoming man to save man is.

Stand up against what is sacred to others to promote who is sacred.

    Stephen was not only a person who cared for others he knew a great deal about God’s Word and what God had done throughout History. He spoke openly and honestly about who God is and how the God of the universe came into the world in Jesus Christ.

     Before Stephen had begun to defend himself to the leadership, the Sanhedrin, they were looking at him. Stephen a man accused of being opposed to God, His Law, and His holy place and yet the way he is described is not to similar to Moses, the author of the Law, designer of the tabernacle (the original holy place), and the man who had spent time with God.[6]

      All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel. – Acts 6:15

      How remarkably familiar the Sanhedrin must have felt to you on any given Sunday morning when Stephen starts addressing his accusations. The stories you have heard, the history that you have taught, and the truths that can become so common. Yet, Stephen was answering the charges brought against him, by rooting his teaching in the history of his people, in God’s Word, and the place where God is.

      “His concern was to demonstrate that his position, far from being ‘blasphemous’ or disrespectful to God’s word, actually honored it. For Old Testament Scripture itself confirmed his teaching about the temple and the law, especially by predicting the Messiah, whereas by rejecting him it was they who disregarded the law, not he. Stephen’s mind had evidently soaked up the Old Testament, for his speech is like a patchwork of allusions to it.” – John R. Stott[7]

      Stephen roles out an argument for who Jesus is and how the charges against him were false. First, the Temple. You must remember though there are numerous scriptures that highlight the Holiness of the Temple, the items in the Temple, and the land that the Temple was on, “long before there was a holy place, there was a holy people”[8] Actually, even with Holy land when Stephen spoke of a Holy Place it was a random mountain where Moses met a bush on fire. “There was holy ground outside the holy land.  Wherever God is, is holy.”[9]

     The place does not make something holy God makes something Holy. It was not Abraham that made Abram and his descendants holy, God made them holy. It was not the land that made God holy, but God’s presence that made the land holy.

      We are made holy by God. The believers are called not only the body of Christ, we are called the Temple of God. We are given this great title because the Holy Spirit, God, dwells in us. That is why Stephen was able to say that the Temple in Jerusalem could be torn down.

     But, Stephen’s message focused more on the presence of God it focused on the promises of God. Stephen makes a subtle point in Acts 7:17 when he address God’s fulfillment of a promise he made to Abraham. “The Number of our people in Egypt greatly increased.” Two promises were made by God to Abraham a land and a people. God provided the people of God before he provided the Land. The land was not a prerequisite for the people of God.

     Our ancestors had the tabernacle of the covenant law with them in the wilderness. It had been made as God directed Moses, according to the pattern he had seen.  After receiving the tabernacle, …  But it was Solomon who built a house for him. “However, the Most High does not live in houses made by human hands… – Acts 6:44-45a & 47-48

     This is a fantastic truth that we take for granted. We naturally understand and believe that. We don’t worship a place and we do not travel a nation, an empire, to get to the place where God dwells. But, we do travel a town, a highway, a city to get to a place of worship. We sing songs corporately together and dive into God’s Word at “church.” But, can you and do you do this same act at home throughout the week?

     We can sometimes get distracted by the steeple or stain glass and hymnal. Or the contemporary service can be distract us with the band and the experience. These distractions can distort our view and practice of a simple time of worship around the table at work, at home, or out with friends in the yard. Not to mention the joy of a Bible study.

     We may not sing Psalm 48 about the loftiness of the temple when describing church, but we might have tendencies toward elevating “proper” places for worship and study.

     The greatest and focused dynamic from Stephen’s defense/sermon is simple though. Stephen starts his response to the accusations in Acts 7 with, “our father Abraham” (v1), “our people” (v19), “our ancestors” (v19), again “our ancestors” (v39), and again “our ancestors” (v44) until he culminates his answer to their accusations with this:

     “You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your ancestors did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him  you who have received the law that was given through angels but have not obeyed it.” – Acts 7:51-53

     This is probably one of the most devastating moments in any discussion. Stephen’s message was not meant to be one of kindness, nor one of gentle discussion. It was one that ended with laying the death of Jesus, the God of the universe in human flesh, at their feet. They brought Stephen to be judged by them and thought Stephen was defending himself against accusations. Rather than defend himself, he declared the guilt of those putting him on the dock.

     Stephen was accused of defiling and blaspheming against the Lord, His Word, and His Holy Temple. Stephen declared that they had murdered the Lord, betrayed and disobeyed the Word, and defiled the very Temple of God by

     While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he fell asleep. – Acts 7:59-60

     This is what the disciples had been waiting for. What happened to Jesus has happened again. This was the moment the Sanhedrin was warned and worried about. They worried that the followers of Jesus would only grow. But, they were convinced to let the Apostles continue by Gamaliel. But, his warning was not simply to let them grow it was to not get in the way of God.

     The leaders did what the disciples had feared would happen the night of Jesus arrest. But, the Apostles rejoiced in their suffering and disgrace for the name of Jesus (Acts 5:41). Stephen cried out for their forgiveness as they murdered him.

     Stephen’s death opened the door for further and future attacks on people who follow Jesus. It set a new standard for what could be allowed to happen to believers. This is the story of Stephen. Stephen had just been given a position to care for people. He literally focused his life around feeding and caring for people, but because he was doing it for Jesus and spoke boldly about it he was criticized and eventually killed.

     Often, we think that speaking the truth and doing good for whatever reason will be welcomed. But, what do you do when good deeds and even right motives are scorned ridiculed and attacked? Do you believe not simply in what you are saying and what you are doing, but do you believe that who you are doing them for can be produced something amazing from it? Can you rejoice that God can produce something not only from your good actions but from the attacks on you because of Jesus? That is what Stephen lived and died for.

     He knew who He was living for and what Jesus could potentially do in the world. No matter the cost to Stephen he knew that others needed to hear and know about who Jesus is. Stephen’s death not only set a precedent for future people opposed to the gospel, Stephen also set a standard for those who believe in Jesus. Nothing is more important than the truth of who Jesus is.

     But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.” – Acts 7:55-56

     What would it look like if we declared the truth of God boldly!

     At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. – Acts 7:57b-58

    Do you remember the reason why Jesus was brought to Pilot and Herod? The Sanhedrin did not have the authority to kill people. It did not matter. They did not hide what they were doing, they dragged him through the city as they exited it in order throw stones and rocks at him until he was dead. This was done for everyone to see; the city witnessed a murder.

     Jesus, then Peter and John, and now Stephen have all challenged their authority and their understanding, and their way of life. What are you willing to challenge and do for the sake of Jesus? What are you willing to give for Jesus to be known at your work, in your community, and in the lives of everyone that meets you?

What are you willing to lose and give for Jesus to be known where you are?

     I ask this question in the context of Stephen, not simply Stephen’s death but what he did while he was being murdered. He prayed for God to forgive them and not hold that sin against them. Do you pray that the sin, hurt, and cruelty people do to you and those you love would be forgiven? Do you pray that they would be given great gifts and happiness while they harm you?

     And, do you realize that Stephen’s prayer and actions, like yours can, changed the landscape of the world. Stephen’s death sparked persecution and attacks on other believers and the church like nothing else. Open hostility was ushered in against the church. Those who opposed the church no longer needed to fear the people, the people had joined them, again.

     But, persecution was not the only legacy Stephen left. Saul who became Paul was party to Stephen’s death. Stephen’s death was a catalyst to make Saul the persecutor of the church that changed the church for eternity and brought more people to know Christ than we can imagine.

     Stephen’s kindness and generosity brought him to a place of leadership in the church as a deacon. Stephen’s boldness produced a lasting legacy and example in the church as its first martyr. But, Stephen’s greatest triumph was his legacy of grace he showed to those who brutally killed him. He showed that God’s grace and love extends even to the worst and those who are the worst to us.

Who can you forgive so that others might know Jesus!  

     Stephen’s legacy ends with Stephen’s death, but his legacy started with his care for people. His willingness to care. Stephen showed an ability to help others. We must find ways to help others and speak to anyone and everyone about Jesus.

     Paul had made mistakes, yet God used him. And, the church needed to forgive him and welcome him fully knowing his failures. Our mistakes or slip-ups as we share the amazing news of Christ crucified and Christ resurrected do not negate and cannot dare to overshadow the power and greatness of Christ!

     What can you do as you prepare to bless those in your life? There might be some small steps you can take now or are taking now that are preparing you for even greater steps to come.

     I was sitting on a bench in the balcony of the Capital Building in Lincoln, Nebraska       this week waiting for the robing of a new Supreme Court Justice of Nebraska. I spoke with a guy named Max. We talked about life. That life included his job and mine. He is a Federal Prosecutor in New York out of Harvard. I am a Pastor in Stromsburg Nebraska. And, a simple conversation led us to a small step. He asked me to pray for him and mention him in church this Sunday. He said simply how great an honor that would be.

     Now we know that church is not a place, but a gathering of believers in worship of God. Today we have gathered to worship our God and soon we will depart to worship God where ever you are going today. I’m going to pray for Max, I’d like you to pray for Max. I’d also like you to pray for the people you met this week and will meet this next week.

     Pray for the people you need to forgive. Pray for the people you will meet that you will be bold enough to speak about the greatness of God. Pray that the truth of God is real to those you meet and that his grace is evident in your actions and words.  

Be bold, be humble, be the reflection of Christ in others’ lives. Be the Living Gospel!

 

[1] Ajith Fernando, Acts, The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1998), 226.

[2] J. Julius Scott Jr., “Sadducees,” Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, Baker Reference Library (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 700.

[3] R. K. Harrison, “Government,” Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, Baker Reference Library (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1996), 311.

[4] John R. W. Stott, The Message of Acts: The Spirit, the Church & the World, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 130.

[5] John R. W. Stott, The Message of Acts: The Spirit, the Church & the World, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 127–128.

[6] John R. W. Stott, The Message of Acts: The Spirit, the Church & the World, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 129.

[7] John R. W. Stott, The Message of Acts: The Spirit, the Church & the World, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 130.

[8] John R. W. Stott, The Message of Acts: The Spirit, the Church & the World, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 132.

[9] John R. W. Stott, The Message of Acts: The Spirit, the Church & the World, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 137.