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The Life of Stephen

This article is adapted from a sermon preached by Adam Brock entitled “The Life of Stephen.”

What is the longest sermon you’ve ever listened to?

I’m hoping that no one emails me saying that my sermons feel like the longest they’ve ever listened to.

Chapter 20 of the book of Acts records Paul preaching all night long and a young man falling asleep and then falling out the window to his death. Now the scriptures record him being brought back to life in a miraculous fashion, but that must have been a long message.

Well, today our passage includes the longest recorded message in Acts.

Here’s the context: The early church begins with incredible momentum and growth. And that growth brought with it opportunities and challenges in abundance. Some of those challenges came from the outside as in the case of the religious leaders of the day telling the disciples to stop proclaiming the gospel, but some challenges came from within, as in the case with Ananias and Sapphira. Another example of a challenge came in chapter 6 where we see the burden of ministry growing as they seek to care for all those in the church, particularly the widows. It was this last situation that would lead to the formation of the office of deacon, which the church still has today. At the heart of a deacon is the heart of a servant. The great need of caring for the church led to the choice of seven men who would shoulder the burden of ministry for the young church. One of those men was Stephen, and it’s his life that we’ll be examining together from the Scriptures.

Let’s open our Bibles now to Acts chapter 6 and let’s examine what the Word of God says to us.
Starting in verse 1, this is what the Word of God says:

6:1 In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food.
2 So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables.
3 Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them
4 and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”
5 This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism.
6 They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.
7 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.


Stephen is the man.

Seriously. Stephen understood what it meant to serve and live your life with purpose and mission. His life is worth studying because his life was patterned after the life of Jesus.
That should be true of all of us. We should be able to stand and confidently say, “look at my life, and imitate what I do. And if you do that you’ll be like Jesus.”
 
On the surface, I see how that may seem arrogant. But this is exactly what Paul says, in 1 Corinthians 11:1 (CSB), “Imitate me, as I also imitate Christ.”

Church, this is a challenge for us. Is your life worth imitating? Are you living in such a way that someone could watch you, repeat, and it be honoring to God? That’s what we’re all called to. And Stephen is for us an excellent example, worth imitating.

The first thing we see is Stephen serves.

The church has grown and there is a lot of work to do. And so, Stephen is chosen to be a part of leading in the work of ministry.

Remember this: We are saved to serve.

We are saved from our sin, but we are saved for service to our King. No person here was saved so that they might just sit and soak. No. We’re called to serve. Saved for a purpose.

Paul echoes this same idea when he writes in Ephesians 2:10, “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.”

God has saved us for a purpose that includes service.

So, church, are you serving?

There is an alarming static that has been a harsh reality for churches over the decades. It’s called the 20% rule. It states that in most churches the work of ministry is done by only 20% of the people. I get why this happens. Someone signs up to serve and they end up being recruited by four different departments to serve in 11 different programs for seven days of the week. They’re armed with an attaboy, trained with a pep talk, and told they must report indefinitely. That’s enough to burn anyone out.

And it shouldn’t be this way. And at Trinity, we’re actively working to make sure this is not our reality. But the truth is, we’re not where we need to be. We have some wonderful servants, and they are a huge blessing. But this is what I want us to live out: “Nobody has to do everything, but everybody does something.”

We ought to be a community so filled with servants that it’s impossible for one person to volunteer in every ministry. And there are tons of areas of service.

Our children’s ministry is a place where lives are being changed, and we need people who can come alongside them and do the work of ministry. That doesn’t mean you have to do everything and that you have to sign up to serve for life, but it does mean that if you don’t serve at all, then it’s time to pick up the phone and call Pastor Jerry and let him know that you want to be like Stephen and you’re reporting for duty.

But that is not the only place you can serve. We have a robust student ministry that is pouring into the lives of students. A young adult ministry that is creating community and needs host homes and mentors. We’ve got a ladies’ ministry that working hard to minister to the women in the Lake Area. We’ve got an education ministry that desperately needs leaders and teachers, both for Sunday Morning Bible Study but also for Midweek classes in the fall. We’ve got a men’s ministry that needs men who are willing to give their lives away and invest in other men. We’ve got a hospitality ministry with Mrs. Vonceil that works hard to make sure every big event that happens on campus is done with excellence. And we’ve got a missions ministry that needs people willing to participate in local missions and global missions. Undoubtedly, I’ve missed a major area of ministry because to list them all would take forever, but suffice it to say, there is work to do and we need you.

Before we move on, take note of verse 7: 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.

Stephen served and showcased the reality that faithfulness is measured in obedience. And obedience leads to fruit. What was crucial for the early church will also be the key to Trinity Baptist Church growing and being effective for the kingdom. We must be filled with servants.
Now I told you that growth brings opportunities and challenges. Well, this next section reveals the nature of some of those challenges.

8 Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, performed great wonders and signs among the people.
9 Opposition arose, however, from members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called)—Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia—who began to argue with Stephen.
10 But they could not stand up against the wisdom the Spirit gave him as he spoke.
11 Then they secretly persuaded some men to say, “We have heard Stephen speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God.”
12 So they stirred up the people and the elders and the teachers of the law. They seized Stephen and brought him before the Sanhedrin.
13 They produced false witnesses, who testified, “This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place and against the law.
14 For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us.”


So, here’s what is happening: in response to the rapid growth the early church experienced, opposition and persecution arose. There were those that were threatened by the promise of eternal life in Jesus, who rather wanted to maintain power and prominence over the people that challenged men like Stephen. But because of the Holy Spirit, they were not able to challenge him. And so, they lied. And as a result, Stephen suffered.

They brought false charges and they seized him.

What is it costing you to follow Jesus? I think this is a question we should all consider.

And the reality is, as much as we try to ignore it, suffering is a part of the Christian experience. To deny this is to ignore our Bibles, and to avoid the sanctifying work of the Spirit in our lives.

Because suffering is going to occur. Many of you know that all too well. And when it happens, our natural self cries out and does everything it can to avoid it, because the message of the world is live for yourself, avoid difficulty, and pursue the “good life.” And the message of the cross is to deny yourself, pick up your cross, and follow me.

These are very different ideas. But it is precisely in the darkest and most difficult moments of life that we see the comfort of God and the peace of God and the power of God, in ways that would only be clear, in the context of our hurt.

Charles Spurgeon is credited with saying that “he has learned to kiss the wave that throws him upon the rock of ages.”

In The Problem of Pain, C.S. Lewis wrote that “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”

There have been moments in my life that were filled with loss and grief. And as I reflect upon them, I stand here today giving God glory for carrying me through these difficulties. I have learned that you can throw yourself at the feet of the cross and God can reach down and hold you together when it feels like your entire world is falling apart.

If someone told you that coming to Jesus was going to mean you live a problem-free life, without any sickness, suffering, or trial, they lied. Plain and simple. That’s not the point of life. The point isn’t a problem-free life, the point is to glorify God in all things. And there is an epidemic sweeping across this nation called “prosperity Gospel” and it’s growing in popularity with young and older people alike. The promise is that if you have enough faith, or the right knowledge, or access to the right people then God will bless you with health and possessions, and everything your heart desires.
         
Church, do not be led astray. The message of the Bible is that we have a God that loves us so much he came and died for us. And in doing so invites us to find life in him, but also on his terms. The life he promises very well still may include hardship and difficulty, but it also includes his presence that will sustain you and his promise that through it all you will produce glory for his name.

Now as we talk about hardships and suffering, there are things that come into our lives simply because we live in a fallen world. But what about those difficulties that enter our lives because we follow Jesus? Those are the ones that give us the opportunity to refine our faith. Unless God calls you to a particularly dangerous place (which he still does by the way) but unless that happens the majority of us here today will not be faced with whether or not we would die for Christ, but instead, we’re faced with the challenge of “will we live for Christ?”

Stephen suffered and became the first Christian martyr in the New Testament. But God does not call all of us to be martyrs, but he does call us to be “living sacrifices” (Rom. 12:1-2). While we should all be prepared to die for him, we should wake up each day and take up the task of living for him.

What makes this difficult is the simple truth that I can’t live for Christ, and still live for myself. I can’t serve his purposes and my agenda. And living for myself is something that comes quite naturally to all of us. We’ve got to lay down the rights to our lives and commit ourselves to follow Jesus, exclusively.

Now, look with me at chapter 7, verse 1.

We’re not going to read the entirety of the next section, but I want you to see how Stephen responds to suffering.

7:1  Then the high priest asked Stephen, “Are these charges true?”
2  To this he replied: “Brothers and fathers, listen to me. The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham while he was still in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Harran.


In response to these false charges, to the people slandering Stephen and Stephen’s Lord, we see our guy rising to the occasion, not to defend himself per se. Not backing up, not changing his story, not compromising his message. But instead, with boldness we see Stephen speak.

“Are these charges true?” I don’t know what was running through Stephen’s mind when he was presented with this question. I don’t know if he was tempted to take the easy way out by backing down from his message and falling in line with the powers that be. But instead of trying to be political or trying to make sure he got out of trouble, Stephen opens his mouth and launches into what becomes a sermon, detailing the story of God’s people right up to the moment they were in.

Here’s the lesson: We ought to leverage our circumstances for God’s mission. And when we do, hopeless situations become glory-producing events for our God.

This was Stephen’s chance to try to get out of trouble, but he recognized that God had him in that spot for the purpose of declaring the Gospel.

Now just to jump ahead because I know at least one question that might be brewing. “How can we say that Stephen speaking here was leveraged for God’s mission? After all, spoiler, they kill him in the next few verses.” Here is where the beauty of our 27 in 22 reading plan shines. This morning we’re focusing specifically on the life of Stephen. But because you’re reading through the book of Acts, you’ll be able to see how God was moving to send out his church, which is the heading in my Bible at the start of the next chapter: “The Church Persecuted and Scattered.” And so, we see that Stephen’s death and testimony served as a catalyst for the mission effort of the early church. Not to mention the fact that the young man mentioned at the end of chapter 7, would later be known as the Apostle Paul, i.e., the writer of a majority of the New Testament and the greatest Christian missionary to ever live.

Let’s jump back into the text. I want us to look at this in two ways. There is the lesson of Stephen speaking. Which teaches us that we must declare God’s goodness to the world. Our witness will be incomplete without us opening our mouths and using actual words. And when we do that, we take difficulties and rewrite them as opportunities.

But there is also the lesson of what Stephen says. He reaches back into the Old Testament and gives a masterful description of what we call the 30,000-foot view of scripture.

In doing this he begins to illustrate for the people what it looks like to read the Bible through the lens of Christ. Well, what does that mean?

It means that we come to God’s Word understanding that the whole Bible is one story by one divine author that culminates in who Jesus is and what he has done so that every part of scripture is understood in relation to him.  
         
Stephen accomplishes this by talking first about the patriarch Abraham, then Isaac, and Jacob and Joseph. He talks about Moses and how God rescued Israel from Egypt and how he provided for them. He talks about how Aaron led the people into idolatry and how God punished them for their sin. He goes on to talk about the tabernacle and David and Solomon and the building of the temple.

As I said this is a long message we have recorded here, and I would encourage you, today, to carve out some time to read it in its entirety before the day is done.

And what I hope you’ll see is the mastery with which Stephen spoke. Not only did he recap the Old Testament beautifully, but what he did was flip the script on the religious leaders who had seized and falsely accused him. He recounted the very story and the very scriptures that they were clinging to, all in an effort to help them see that even though they were religious they had completely missed the mark. They were looking to these stories for meaning and purpose, but they rejected Jesus.

Church, if your story doesn’t have Jesus, it’s incomplete. That was true for them and it’s true for us today. Just as scripture finds its meaning and fulfillment in Christ, we too find our meaning, find our purpose, find our identity, and find life only in Christ.

That means, similar to these religious leaders, if your story today is religious, moral, patriotic, altruistic, etc. but it doesn’t have Jesus, it’s incomplete.

Church, part of our task is to encourage one another to keep Jesus as the center of our stories. That is part of the reason we gather each week. That’s the reason we ask you to be in a small group so that you can continually push one another to ask, Is Jesus the center of my story?

Because Jesus has much to say about our stories.

  • Are you a parent? What do you think Jesus wants to say about your story? Do you think he desires to be in the middle of your parenting?
  • Are you retired today? What do you think Jesus wants to say about that? Do you think he desires to be in the middle of your retirement?
  • Are you a student? Are you a boss? Are you an empty nester? Are you single? Are you a shift worker? Are you in the middle of a turnaround? Don’t you think in each of these stories Jesus has something he wants to say and do? Doesn’t he want to be in the middle of it all? You bet he does.

And if we try to live life on our own, for ourselves, without Christ, then our best effort will still fall short. Because a story without Jesus will always be incomplete.
 
So, whatever your circumstances today, won’t you let Jesus have his way in your life? So that, as we discussed earlier, your moments of difficulty actually become moments of opportunity.

Now, if you’re not a Christian, then know this, only Jesus can complete your story. Don’t resist him today.

Before we tackle our last section look really quickly at verses 51-53.
           
51 “You stiff-necked people. Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit.
52 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—
53 you who have received the law that was given through angels but have not obeyed it.”
While this seems harsh, and it is. The purpose here from Stephen was to open their eyes to their need for repentance. Church, we need not fear, or resist the conviction that comes from the Holy Spirit because his goal in convicting is restoring. But sadly, the people here don’t respond with faith and repentance but with anger and more sin.


Let’s finish out this text by reading verses 54-60.
 
54 When the members of the Sanhedrin heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him.
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.
56 “Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
57 At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him,
58 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.
59 While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”
60 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.


This is the stoning of Stephen, but that’s not what I want you to write. Because this is where Stephen shines. Yes, he was killed. Yes, the people acted unjustly in murdering an innocent man. But in this moment, we see a true example of a life committed to king Jesus.

Throughout this whole ordeal, Stephen followed in the footsteps of Jesus. Like his master, he was falsely accused. He was hated without a cause. He was committed to the mission and in his last moments, he prayed that the sins of the people who were killing him would be forgiven.

And as this happens, he looks up and he sees his validation. Verse 56 says that he saw Jesus standing there looking at him and Stephen knew that though they take his life, he has something worth dying for. Something they couldn’t rob of him.

He had the attention of his savior. I hope today you know Jesus in that way. In a deep way that says, “even if they take my life, if I still have Jesus, I have everything.”

Now if you’ve followed very carefully you noticed that I skipped verse 15 from Chapter 6. This was during the sham of a trial that they put Stephen through. This is what it says:

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

Stephen’s face became a witness to Stephen’s faith.

The glory of the Spirit of God was shining through Stephen so that people saw the difference God had made in his life.
 
I so want that to be true of you, of me, of us as a church. That when people look, they see us shining. But not for ourselves and not for our own glory. Because, as much as Stephen is a giant of the faith, and worthy of honor, he’s not the hero of the story. He was just following the example of Jesus, the true hero.

For when Jesus gave his life, he did so for the salvation of everyone who would come to him in faith and with repentance.

Stephen’s death motivated the church. But Jesus’ death bought the church. And it is the death and resurrection of Jesus that offers us hope today.

  • So, what about your story? Is it still incomplete? Do you need to respond in faith to the invitation of Jesus?
  • Christian, are there areas of your life where you have tried to keep Jesus from being the center?
  • Is there an area of service you need to jump into?
  • Is there a situation of suffering that you need to trust God in?
  • Is it time for you to open your mouth at work, at home, in the arenas of life, and speak the good news of Jesus?

If you do that you too will shine.

If you are ready to surrender to God or want to know more, let us know by emailing communications@tbclc.org or calling 337-480-1555.

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