God Uses Ordinary People: Stephen

Acts 6-7

August 31, 2008 | Brian Bill

Nine-year-old Jericho Scott is a good baseball player – too good, it turns out because Jericho is a pitcher with a 40-mile-an-hour fastball.  He throws so hard that the Youth Baseball League of New Haven, Connecticut told his coach that he could not pitch anymore.  When Jericho took the mound anyway last week, the opposing team forfeited the game, packed its gear and left.  Wilfred Vido, his coach, had this to say: “How can you punish a kid for being too good?”  Young Jericho is bothered by all the controversy and misses pitching: “I feel sad,” he said.  “I feel like it’s all my fault nobody could play.”

In a league of ordinary players, Jericho stands out as someone with extraordinary abilities.  As we wrap up our series today called “God Uses Ordinary People,” we’re going to focus on an extraordinary individual named Stephen, who was not only banned from playing; his preaching led to his martyrdom.  Since this is the last message in our summer series, I want to emphasize again that God loves to use ordinary people, just like you and just like me. 

Please turn in your Bibles to Acts chapter 6.  We’ll go through this chapter quickly, and then we’ll skim most of chapter 7 and finally camp out in the closing verses.  Here’s the setting.  The church is growing and people are coming to Christ but in the process some of the widows were being overlooked.  On top of that, there’s some friction between two groups from different cultural backgrounds.  As a result the Twelve gathered everyone together and established that they needed to keep preaching and praying and then seven men are chosen to care for the widows.  Among the seven was a servant named Stephen.  

That’s a good reminder for us in our 40th year of ministry in Livingston County – we must never neglect preaching and prayer and we must always be willing to restructure and realign people and programs to meet the changing needs around us.  This is especially the case as we focus on ways to connect families to Jesus and then to equip them to become growing and faithful followers.  As a result of this restructuring, verse 7 says: “So the word of God spread.  The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.”

I see three main things we can learn from Stephen.  

1. Determine to be ready. 

The first reason Stephen was used greatly was because he was ready to be used.  We see that there is a rich fullness about him.  He is…

  • Full of the Spirit (3)
  • Full of wisdom (3)
  • Full of faith (5)
  • Full of the Holy Spirit (5)
  • Full of God’s grace (8)
  • Full of God’s power (8)
He knew his emptiness apart from Christ and so he made sure he was filled up before being used

The word “full” means that he was complete or “fully covered over.”  He knew his emptiness apart from Christ and so he made sure he was filled up before being used.  He was determined to be ready.

And, something we’ve seen time and again in our study of God’s Word, whenever God is at work, opposition rises up.  Look at verse 9: “Opposition arose…these men began to argue with Stephen.”  Verse 10 tells us that they couldn’t stand up against “his wisdom or the Sprit by whom he spoke” and so they find some men who lay false charges of blasphemy against him.  Everyone gets all stirred up, and Stephen is seized and brought before the Sanhedrin, which was like the Jewish Supreme Court.  False witnesses come forward and they’re ready to throw him out of the league.  We see a contrast right away between their anger and Stephen’s sweet spirit in verse 15: “All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like that of an angel.”

Stephen now has the opportunity to answer the charges in chapter 7 and in the process provides an outstanding overview of the Old Testament.  In Jude 3 we are urged “to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints.”  1 Peter 3:15 challenges each of us to be ready as well: “But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord.  Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.  But do this with gentleness and respect.”  

Stephen begins with an attitude of gentleness and respect in 7:1: “Brothers and fathers” but he is also very passionate when he says: “listen to me!”  Beginning with Abraham and then moving on to Joseph, Moses, Joshua, David and Solomon, with quotations from Amos and Isaiah thrown in, Stephen establishes at least three things.

  • God has never been limited to one space or place.  He cannot be put in a box.
  • God’s people have never fully obeyed Him.
  • Leaders have always had a habit of rejecting and killing those whom God sends.

One thing that is striking to me in this long chapter is how well Stephen knows Scripture and how clearly he communicates the narrative.  With all the political speeches we heard last week and with all the ones that are coming this week, Stephen’s speech stands out as brilliant and bold.  While speeches today are analyzed according to poetry and policy, Stephen’s is full of powerful preaching.  If you want to be ready, first make sure Christ is Lord of your life and that He fills you up and then make sure the Word saturates your life.

2. Decide to be bold. 

I’ll never forget and will always be thankful for how confrontative my college roommate was when he talked to me about Christ.  He was respectful but he didn’t hold back when he told me that he didn’t think I was a Christian.  I was mad when he said it, and even swore at him, but I knew he was right.  Bruce’s words were kind compared to what Stephen says in 7:51-53: “You stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears!”  This strong colloquial phrase was the ultimate prophetic put-down.  

To be stiff-necked means to have never surrendered to the yoke of a master and was used 20 times in the Old Testament to describe someone who would not bow before God.  Exodus 32:9 is just one example: “I have seen these people…and they are a stiff-necked people.”  To say they were uncircumcised in their hearts and ears is to say that they were just like gentile dogs on the inside.  Sure, they followed rules and regulations with outward rituals but their hearts were hard. “You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit!”  Notice that he says they “always” resist the Holy Spirit; not once-in-awhile, but all the time.  That’s quite an indictment to lay at the feet of religious leaders.

“Was there ever a prophet your fathers 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 put into effect through angels but have not obeyed it.”  Stephen now only takes on their fathers for their faithlessness; he also calls them out using the second person plural: All of youhave betrayed and murdered Christ.  Friends, preaching cannot always be positive if the preacher is preaching the full counsel of God.

I came across a cartoon this week in which a pastor is standing in the back of the church, shaking hands with people as they leave.  One man looked intently at the pastor and said, “Powerful sermon, pastor.  Your sermons are thoughtful and well-researched.  I can always see myself in them…and I want you to knock it off.”

Their response is immediate and intense in verse 54: “They were furious and gnashed their teeth at him.”  The word furious means to be “sawn asunder” or “to be emotionally cut in two.”  They are so mad that their teeth start grinding together which makes us think of the words of Jesus in Matthew 13: 42: “They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”  This is not a sudden outburst but rather the tense shows that it was prolonged.  Don’t miss the truth that hell will be filled with angry people.  

First, be ready to share Christ. Second, be bold when the opportunity comes and refuse to water down the message, no matter how it’s received.

3. Delight to die well.  

I read somewhere that the task of a pastor is to prepare people for a good death.  I think there’s some truth in that.  Stephen not only teaches us to be ready and how to be bold, he also helps us to die well.  He had a full life and died a good death.  

  • He faced death with a focus on Jesus.  Look at 7:55: “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.”  Do you see the “conjunction junction?”  But in contrast to the rage and anger, Stephen was “continually full of the Holy Spirit.”  He looked in the right direction and saw the Shekinah glory of God.  Friends, when you’re down, make sure you look up to the Lord.  To Stephen death is not dark or dangerous; it is a window where Jesus meets the believer.  

It’s interesting that he saw Jesus “standing” at the right hand of God.  That’s curious because most passages say that Jesus is “seated” in heaven.  Why would He be standing?  John MacArthur offers this explanation: “He sat down in terms of redemption, but He always gets up when His children are in trouble.”  I love 1 Peter 4:14: “If you are insulted because of the name of Christ, you are blessed, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests on you.”  Here are some other possibilities for why Jesus was standing.

  1. To welcome Stephen home.
  2. To cheer and applaud with words of, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”
  3. To witness what they were about to do to him.
  4. To defend him before the Father (Matthew 10:32).

They couldn’t stand to hear Stephen speak of Jesus, the one they had murdered, now standing at the right hand of God and so verse 57 tells us “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.” They didn’t want to hear anything else so they put their hands over their ears and started yelling as loud as they could.  Then, these dignified men rushed at him, dragged him out of the city (they followed the Old Testament here) and stoned him.

The second-century Jewish writing Mishnah, describes the practice of stoning: “When the trial is finished, the man convicted is brought out to be stoned …When ten cubits from the place of stoning they say to him, ‘Confess, for it is the custom of all about to be put to death to make confession, and every one who confesses has a share in the age to come.’  Four cubits from the place of stoning the criminal is stripped…The drop from the place of stoning was twice the height of a man.  One of the witnesses pushes the criminal from behind, so that he falls face downward.  He is then turned over on his back.  If he dies from this fall, that is sufficient.  If not, the second witness takes the stone and drops it on his heart.  If this causes death, that is sufficient; if not, he is stoned by all the congregation of Israel.” (Cited in Bruce)

In the midst of all this activity spurred on by their anger, I love how Stephen verbalizes what he sees.  Heaven is open to him because Jesus is the door by which he is about to enter.  In verse 59, he prays directly to Jesus: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”   If you’ve never received Jesus as your Savior, you need to know that the door to heaven is open – but it doesn’t stay open forever!

  • He faced death with Scripture in his words.  Stephen’s entire sermon is filled with Scripture and now, in the seconds before his death, he quotes the short Jewish prayer from Psalm 31:5, changing the words slightly to reflect the lordship of Christ: “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”  The time to learn Scripture is now so that we have it when we need it. 
  • He faced death with forgiveness in his heart.  As the stones rained down on him, he could have become very bitter.  Instead, he prayed in verse 60: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”  Stephen is being just like His Savior when He prayed these words in Luke 23:34: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”  At his point of death, Stephen is demonstrating the type of forgiveness that can only come from the Great Forgiver.  Romans 5:5: “God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit.”  It’s only through the outpouring of His love that we can ever hope to pour out forgiveness to those who have wronged us.

Do you have any bitterness in your heart right now?  Don’t take it to the grave with you.  It’s time to forgive, right now, today.  Don’t put it off.  Let it go.  Instead of being filled with rage, release that person from ever having to pay you back.

  • He faced death like going to sleep.  Look at the end of verse 60: “When he had said this, he fell asleep.”  He went to sleep when the stones were flung by angry arms and then woke up in the adoring arms of Jesus.  2 Corinthians 5:8 says that when believers leave here we are immediately at home with Jesus.  Death is nothing to fear for the follower of Christ for He has conquered death as stated in 1 Corinthians 15:55-57: “‘Where, O death, is your victory?  Where, O death, is your sting?’  The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.  But thanks be to God!  He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

Putting Into Practice

1. People are watching how we live and how we die

The Apostle Paul was impacted by how Stephen died.  Look at the last part of verse 58: “Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul.” It’s interesting that the stone-throwers take their clothes off.  I think it was in order to pitch the stones as fast as they could, probably with much more velocity than 40 miles per hour.  Now drop down to 8:1: “And Saul was there, giving approval to his death.”  I’m sure that Paul had a hard time getting Stephen out of his mind.  Later on, in Acts 9, we read of Paul’s conversion, which is an answer to the prayer of Stephen: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”  Then, in Acts 22:20, when Paul is conversing with Christ, he says these words: “And when the blood of your martyr Stephen was shed, I stood there giving my approval and guarding the clothes of those who were killing him.” 

Don’t lose sight of the fact that people are always watching us and that even hardened hearts can be softened by the Savior.  We received an incredible email this week from some friends who minister in Israel in which they confirmed that the son of a Hamas leader has converted to Christianity!  Our friends were skeptical at first, just like people were when they heard that Paul was saved, but they have heard him give his testimony twice on TV.  He came to Christ as a result of some English-speaking Christians in Jerusalem and received a Bible from them.  Let me quote from part of the email: “When he began reading one of the gospels he was captivated by the person of Jesus and quickly finished all four gospels. From that point he went through a period of trying to combine Islam and Christianity but found that it wasn’t possible. So he came to the conclusion that he must become a follower of Christ and from that point he began meeting secretly with other believers from a Muslim background here in the West Bank…In my view this was an especially compelling testimony, because he made it clear that he had no hatred for anyone and no political agenda…Becoming a Christian was for him simply the final outcome of a personal struggle he had been through…At this point everyone is talking about Musab, both Muslims and Christians, but it remains to be seen what impact his testimony will have on the Palestinian public.”

2. God moves us to get His message out.

In Acts 1:8, the believers are told to take the gospel to Jerusalem, to Judea, to Samaria and to the ends of the earth.  Unfortunately, they basically were just hanging out in Jerusalem, that is, until persecution drove them to other areas.  Check out Acts 8:1: “On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.”  Did you catch that?  Evangelism now takes place in Judea and Samaria and the church launches a missionary movement around the world.  

Sometimes we have to become uncomfortable before we are willing to do whatever it takes to complete the Great Commission

Sometimes we have to become uncomfortable before we are willing to do whatever it takes to complete the Great Commission.  God moves us out so that we will give out the message.  Don’t just assume that hard times are just hard times.  They may be God’s way of getting you to move out to share the Word of God with others.  Related to that, we’re not all called to be martyrs but we are all called to be living sacrifices.  God may use adversity and even persecution to alter our schedules and plans in order to accomplish His purposes. 

3. Pray for persecuted believers. 

Stephen was the first Christian martyr, but he won’t be the last.  Just this week reports have come in from eastern India that 17 Christians have been killed, pastors have been murdered and homes of believers have been burned to the ground.  Friends, Stephen fell asleep…but it’s time for us to wake up and pray for those who are persecuted.  Hebrews 13:3 says: “Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.”

4. Don’t miss God’s salvation.

The time to get ready to die is now, not later.  Do you have a stiff-neck today?  There are two ways to deal with a stiff-necked person.  God can break you or you can bend in humility before Him.  The offer Jesus made still stands in Matthew 11:28-30: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”  Don’t be stiff-necked but humble yourself under the mighty hand of God and receive salvation…while the door is still open.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?