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Lesson 17: Stephen: The Man (Acts 6:8-15)

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When Ruth Bell, who later would marry Billy Graham, was a little girl, she had a passion for martyrdom. She grew up in China, where her parents were missionaries. She used to pray every night that the Lord would let her be a martyr before the end of the year. She wanted bandits to capture and behead her for Jesus’ sake. Her sister, Rosa, used to think, “How horrid!” So every night when Ruth prayed like that, Rosa would pray, “Lord, don’t You listen to her.” (A Foreign Devil in China, John Pollock [World Wide Publications], p. 174.)

While we should not pray for martyrdom, we should desire to imitate the bold witness of those who have given their lives for the sake of the gospel. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, left us an example of a godly, courageous witness. His name means “victor’s crown.” Today we will look at “Stephen, the Man” (6:8-15); next week we will study, “Stephen, the Message” (7:1-53); and then we will consider, “Stephen, the Martyr” (7:54-8:1a). Today, by studying “Stephen, the Man,” we learn that …

Godly character is the basis for courageous witness for Jesus Christ, no matter what the results.

I am not suggesting that a person should wait until he has developed mature character before he begins to bear witness for Christ. Often brand new believers are the best witnesses for Christ, in spite of their spiritual immaturity, assuming that they have truly repented of their sin. But I am saying that godly character gives the most solid foundation for powerful witness, especially when the witness is persecuted. God often uses the person’s godly character under fire to convict those to whom he is bearing verbal witness.

1. Stephen was a man of godly character.

We met Stephen in our last study, where he was picked as one of the seven men to help distribute food to the Hellenistic widows in a fair manner. We do not know what kind of a time gap exists between the commissioning of these seven prototype deacons and the incident described in our text. Perhaps Stephen had done well in this administrative job, so that he could delegate the daily details to someone else, freeing him up to preach the gospel. As we saw last week, not even the apostles could do both, so it is not likely that Stephen carried on both ministries at the same time. Five inner qualities and one outward quality show Stephen to be a man of godly character.

A. His godly character shows itself in five inner qualities:

1) He was full of the Holy Spirit.

This was a requirement that the apostles laid down for the seven men who were to serve tables (6:3). They had to have a good reputation, specifically, of being full of the Holy Spirit. This did not refer to an ecstatic experience, but to a daily walk under the control of the Holy Spirit that had continued for a long enough time to produce the evident fruit of the Spirit.

This quality is implied of Stephen in 6:10, where it states that his opponents could not cope with the wisdom and Spirit with which he was speaking. It is debatable whether “spirit” refers to the Holy Spirit or to the powerful manner in which Stephen spoke. But even if it refers to the manner of Stephen’s speaking, the power behind it came from the Holy Spirit. As Jesus had told His disciples, when they would be delivered up before synagogues and rulers, the Holy Spirit would teach them in that very hour what they needed to say (Luke 12:12). Thus Stephen’s wisdom and spirit in arguing with these Hellenistic Jews came from his being full of the Holy Spirit. That Stephen was full of the Holy Spirit in his defense before the Sanhedrin is specifically stated in 7:55.

Biblically, the main evidence of being filled with the Spirit is the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23). Those qualities are not produced overnight or by an ecstatic experience, but over months and years of walking in the Spirit (Gal. 5:16). Being full of the Spirit does not imply sinless perfection. No one achieves that in this life. Even the most godly of saints have their areas of imperfection and weakness. Even after a lifetime of walking in the Spirit, a godly man or woman can fall into sin, even into serious sin (David is a solemn warning!).

The fullness of the Spirit is a matter of progressive maturity. A new believer may be as yielded to the Holy Spirit as he knows how to be, but he will not demonstrate the fullness of the Spirit in the same manner as a man who has walked with God for many years. The main thing is daily to walk in submission to and dependence on the Spirit of God. As we do that, He grows His fruit in our hearts and lives. He will give us the power to bear witness of Christ to those who are lost. Our godly character, as seen in the fruit of the Spirit, will back up our verbal witness. A person who claims to be a Christian, but whose character is ungodly, should keep quiet about being a Christian, because the enemy will use his inconsistent life to mock the name of Christ.

2) He was full of wisdom.

This was the second requirement for the men who served tables (6:3). It is also seen in Stephen in 6:10. The Greek word for “wisdom” is used only four times in Acts, twice of Stephen (6:3, 10) and twice in his message before the Sanhedrin (7:10, 22). Proverbs 2:6 states, “For the Lord gives wisdom; from His mouth come knowledge and understanding.” Proverbs 9:10 says, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” Thus wisdom comes from knowing God, and Scripture reveals His wisdom.

Wisdom comes from a Hebrew word meaning “skill.” It is used of the craftsmen who had the skill to make the tabernacle and the furniture that went in it (Exod. 36:1, 2). Thus it has the nuance of the skill to live a life that is truly beautiful. It refers to right conduct in obedience to God’s will, not just to mastering a body of knowledge. God’s wisdom is summed up in Jesus Christ and the cross. To those who are perishing, the cross is foolishness, but to those who have been called by God, Christ is both “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:18, 24). To be people full of wisdom, we must grow in our understanding of the cross of Christ, where human pride is humbled and God’s grace is exalted. Every system of salvation that mingles human good works with God’s grace nullifies the cross and is opposed to God’s wisdom. Faithful witnesses, like Stephen, will refute the wisdom of this world and will extol the wisdom of Christ and the cross.

3) He was full of faith.

Stephen is described in 6:5 as being full of faith, referring to his faith in God. Stephen’s sermon in chapter 7 shows that he believed in a sovereign God who called Abraham out of a pagan country and through His covenant dealings with Abraham and his descendants, brought Jesus the Righteous One to save His people, in spite of their history of rebellion. God is sovereign even in the matter of the cross of Christ (2:23; 4:27-28).

You can only be full of faith if you believe in a sovereign God who uses even the wicked deeds of people to accomplish His eternal purpose. If God’s predestination means, as many say, that God looked down through history and saw in advance who would believe in Him, and put them on His list of the elect, then man’s will, not God’s will, is the sovereign determiner of what happens. Can you imagine, God seeing that I would choose Him, so He says, “Well, good, that’s what I wanted anyway!” Or, when Israel stoned her prophets, God saying, “Well, I’d really rather they wouldn’t do such things, but I guess I’ll have to work it into My plan somehow!” How could we trust a God who did not work all things after the counsel of His will (Eph. 1:11)? When we join Stephen in understanding how God is sovereignly working our suffering and perhaps even our martyrdom into His plan, we will be full of faith.

4) He was full of grace.

The same thing is said of Jesus Christ, who was “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Jesus was God’s grace personified. With regard to Stephen, the phrase implies that he had a personal understanding and experience of God’s grace as revealed in the cross of Christ. He knew that salvation is not by our works of righteousness, but rather by the undeserved favor of God, shown to us while we were yet sinners (Rom. 5:8; Titus 3:5-6). “If it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace” (Rom. 11:6). Stephen’s Jewish opponents boasted in their observance of the law, although as we will see, they were blind to their own violation of it. But Stephen boasted in the grace of God, freely bestowed on undeserving sinners.

A person who understands and lives God’s grace as seen in the cross also becomes a person who shows grace to others. An inward experience of grace flows outward into a gracious spirit toward others. Stephen’s being full of grace means that he was a gracious man. He did not curse his persecutors as they threw stones to crush his bones, but rather blessed them by praying, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” (7:60). The most effective witnesses have a clear understanding of the gospel of God’s grace and they are gracious toward others, even to those who are rude, offensive, or do them harm.

5) He was full of power.

God gave Stephen the ability to perform “great wonders and signs among the people” (6:8). These works of power are not described so that readers would gawk; they are simply reported. Whether this power came upon him after the apostles laid hands on him or before, we are not told. Except for the 12 apostles, only Stephen, Philip (8:6-7), and Barnabas (15:12) in the early church are reported to have performed miracles. The tense of the verb (“was performing,” 6:8) indicates that Stephen was doing these miraculous works frequently.

As I said in an earlier message, God can do miracles any time He pleases, and we should not limit Him by our restrictive theology or little faith. But the biblical evidence is that gift of performing miracles regularly was limited to this transitional period for the purpose of confirming the testimony of the apostles (Heb. 2:3-4; 2 Cor. 12:12). As I also said, God’s mighty power is shown in our lives when we patiently and joyfully endure trials, not just when we are miraculously delivered from them (Col. 1:11-12). When unbelievers see us going through trials with joy and thanksgiving, it provides the platform for powerful verbal witness.

Thus Stephen’s inner qualities, being full of the Holy Spirit, wisdom, faith, grace, and power, show his godly character.

B. His godly character shows itself in one outer quality: an angelic countenance.

I’m not sure what the face of an angel looks like, but Stephen had such a countenance as he stood before the council. I presume that Luke got this report from Paul, who was there. Whether it was a radiant glow, like the shining of Moses’ face when he came down from the mountain, or a serene calmness, we can’t say. But his face did not look normal. Howard Marshall says, “The description is of a person who is close to God and reflects some of his glory as a result of being in his presence (Ex. 34:29ff.)” (Acts [IVP/Eerdmans], p. 131).

Bob and Arlene Powers, who now serve in Poland, recently told me that people in Eastern Europe do not smile in public very often. If you just walk down the street with a joyful countenance, and say “hello” to people, you stand out. Our faces should reflect to people that we have been in God’s presence, and that we have His joy and peace in our hearts.

2. Stephen’s godly character was the foundation for his courageous witness.

Because of Stephen’s godly character, he was able powerfully and courageously to preach to the Hellenistic Jews from the Synagogue of the Freedmen. The Freedmen were descendants of Jewish slaves captured by Pompey in 63 B.C. and taken to Rome. When they were later expelled from Rome, some went to Jerusalem and formed a synagogue there. Scholars are divided over how many synagogues are represented in 6:9, but probably there were two: the Freedmen, Cyrenians, and Alexandrians on the one hand; and the men from Cilicia and Asia on the other (A. T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament [Broadman], p. 788). Paul was from Cilicia (a province in southern Asia Minor) and may have been one of the debaters who could not cope with Stephen’s wisdom.

Stephen may have been a member of one of these synagogues. The early Christians did not immediately leave the Jewish worship services until they were forced out by persecution. But when Stephen began to preach that Jesus Christ was the end of the law for righteousness for those who believe (Rom. 10:4), and that Jesus superceded Moses as the prophet of whom Moses spoke (7:37), it was too much for these Hellenistic Jews. First they tried to refute him by debate. When that didn’t work, they used false witnesses, stirred up the people, and dragged him before the Sanhedrin. They accused him of speaking against the temple (“this holy place”), and the Law (6:13). They charged him with claiming that Jesus would destroy the temple and the customs that Moses had handed down (6:14). Stephen’s courageous witness teaches us four things:

A. When we bear witness for Christ, we are speaking to hearts that are blinded by Satan and hardened by sin.

Why couldn’t these men see what Stephen saw, that Jesus Christ is God’s Messiah and Savior? Why weren’t they persuaded by the great wonders and signs that Stephen performed? Why weren’t they convinced by his superior logic and debating skills? The biblical answer is, “the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving, that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cor. 4:4). They are “darkened in their understanding, excluded from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the hardness of their heart” (Eph. 4:18).

Jesus asked the Jews who did not believe in Him, “Why do you not understand what I am saying?” He answered His own question, “It is because you cannot hear My word” (John 8:44). He also said, “No one can come to Me, unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:44). Thus when we talk to people about the Lord, we must pray that He would open their hearts to respond to the message (Acts 16:14).

B. Religious people are often the most hardened in their opposition to the gospel.

We often think, “Drug addicts, prostitutes, and hardened criminals are blinded and hardened against the gospel. But good, church-going, religious folks are more open.” Not true! These Hellenistic Jews built their whole lives around religion, but they did not know God in a personal way and they did not have their sins forgiven. They are about to lynch an innocent man in the name of their religion. Religion can never save a person from sin, because it relies on human effort and good works. Religion often keeps a person from salvation because it fosters self-righteousness and pride. A religious person must humble his pride and admit that he is a sinner by coming to the cross of Jesus Christ for salvation.

C. When we bear witness to blind, hardened sinners, we should be prepared for opposition.

This is especially true when we talk to religious blinded, hardened sinners! The truth that Stephen preached convicted these men of their sins and threatened their pride, so they tried to refute it. When that failed, they attacked the messenger. That is a common ploy of the enemy. When you can’t defeat the message, go after the messenger, either by deceit or by violence. These men used both against Stephen.

Their false witnesses probably were not fabricating lies out of nothing. Rather, they took statements that Stephen had made and twisted them. He had claimed that Jesus superceded Moses and instituted the New Covenant that was better than the old. They did not bother to see if Scripture predicted such things about Messiah. They simply accused Stephen and the Jesus he proclaimed as speaking against the temple and the customs of Moses. When that didn’t stop him, they used force and finally death to silence him.

I have heard a well-known evangelist say, “People are eager to hear about Christ. All we have to do is tell them.” True, God has prepared many hearts to respond. But don’t be surprised if you encounter fierce opposition. Satan doesn’t sit on the sidelines when someone like Stephen boldly proclaims the truth.

D. Miracles, logic, or wisdom are not enough to make converts; only God can do that.

Stephen was performing “great wonders and signs.” He had superior logic and wisdom in debating these men. But that did not break through the hardness of their hearts. They were blind to the contradictions in their own logic and behavior. They accused Stephen of speaking against the Law, and yet in violation of the ninth commandment, they used false witnesses to slander him! They did not believe that Jesus had risen from the dead, so why did they worry about Stephen’s saying that Jesus will destroy this place (6:14)? How could a dead man do that?

I’m not saying that we should not use logic and wisdom to try to convince people of the truth of the gospel. I am saying that logic, wisdom, and even miracles are not enough to convert a sinner. Only God’s mighty power can do that, as He later proved with Paul.

Thus, Stephen shows us that godly character is the basis for courageous witness.

3. Godly, courageous witnesses must leave the results up to God.

God often works in ways that confound even the logic of His saints. To sacrifice a man of Stephen’s caliber after such a short ministry seems inefficient and illogical. To allow a scoundrel like Caiaphas to rule as high priest over the Jews for 18 years seems wrong. Why not strike that wicked man dead and allow Stephen and other godly men to have long and fruitful ministries? God works in mysterious ways His wonders to perform! Through Stephen’s death, Paul got saved. But first the church was scattered through persecution, resulting in a more widespread witness. Whether the godly die young by violent deaths, and the wicked live long and prosper, is God’s sovereign business. Our business is to be faithful to His Great Commission and leave the results to Him.

Conclusion

Years ago the Romanian pastor, Joseph Tson, ran away from his Communist country to study theology in England. In 1972, when he was ready to go back home, he discussed his plans with his fellow students. They pointed out that he might be arrested at the border. One student asked, “Joseph, what chances do you have of successfully implementing your plans?” Joseph smiled and said to himself, “Now this is typically Western thinking.” He later wrote, “Chances of success? I never thought in those terms. My thinking was in terms of obedience. I knew that the king said, ‘Go,’ and I had to say, ‘Yes, sir,’ and go.”

Tson turned the question around and asked God, “What if I ask You about success?” The Lord gave him Matthew 10:16, “I send you as sheep in the midst of wolves.” The Lord said to him, “Tell me, what chance does a sheep surrounded by wolves have of surviving five minutes, let alone of converting the wolves? Joseph, that’s how I send you: totally defenseless and without a reasonable hope of success. If you are willing to go like that, go. If you are not willing to be in that position, don’t go.” (Pastoral Renewal, [6/86, p. 178).

Ask God to give you the godly character of Stephen so that you will be a courageous witness for Jesus Christ. Leave the results to Him. Whether you lose your life as a martyr or whether God protects you, you will, like Stephen, wear the victor’s crown.

Discussion Questions

  1. How godly should a person be before sharing the gospel? Do we have to “have it all together” to be a good witness?
  2. Which of the character qualities that Stephen had do you most need to work on? How will you go about working on it?
  3. If God must open the hearts of hardened sinners, then why can’t they blame Him for not believing (see Rom. 9:6-23)?
  4. How can we help religious people to see their need for forgiveness and eternal life? (Consider Jesus’ approach in the Sermon on the Mount.)

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2001, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Evangelism, Spiritual Life