The Lord's Day Evening
August 27, 2006
Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas
Please turn with me now to The Acts of the Apostles, and to chapter six. We've been looking at The Acts of the Apostles now and we've come this evening to the account of Stephen. It is a seminal portion of The Acts of the Apostles.
We were looking last Lord's Day evening at the choosing of the seven; the spat... disagreement, unpleasantness...that broke out in the church among the Hellenistic widows and the so-called Hebrew widows. The Hellenistic Jews felt that their widows were being overlooked in the distribution of the aid (probably food) in the Jerusalem church. We saw the wisdom of the early church in relieving the apostles of this duty so that they would give themselves to prayer and to the preaching of the word. We noted last week with some interest that this was in fact a decision made by the entire church–that they wanted preaching, they wanted to learn what it was that God needed them to know, and therefore wanted to ensure that the apostles had sufficient time and energy to devote to that.
And then they appoint seven men, full of the Holy Spirit, including Stephen, to be...not as is often thought and said, to be the first deacons. They’re not actually called deacons as such, and there are aspects of their character that don't readily fit the office of a deacon, but it's probably an anachronism to apply the office of a deacon to these seven men. They were perhaps plenipotentiaries of the apostles. We know that Philip, for example, is called later (in Acts 21) an evangelist. And these seven men are set apart, then, for this task.
And now in the remainder of chapter 6, and then the whole of chapter 7, Luke is going to draw our attention to this extraordinary man called Stephen.
We tend to think of the New Testament as dominated by the Apostle Paul. He wrote, of course, thirteen epistles; and once we get into the second half of The Acts of the Apostles, Saul of Tarsus [Paul] will indeed become dominant. But as Luke tells the history of redemption as it unfolds in these early years of the New Testament church, Luke wants us to see that in fact there are a number of individuals whom God raises up who are of considerable importance. Stephen is one. Philip is another. Paul will be another. And Cornelius, in Luke's eyes, will also be another.
At this stage, of course, Paul hasn't yet been converted. He is most certainly here in Jerusalem. He is most certainly at this very moment studying under the rabbinical teaching of Gamaliel. He perhaps is witnessing the very events that we've been studying in these last few weeks, watching with considerable interest and not a little indignation and concern. The growth of these Jewish...now somewhat being called Christians, although that isn't going to happen for some time, and it won't happen in Jerusalem; it will happen in Antioch...but already there are aspects of these Jews who are trusting in Jesus Christ that are causing deep concern to Saul of Tarsus...but on this particular chapter to the Hellenistic synagogue (or perhaps synagogues) in Jerusalem.
Now with that by way of introduction, let's turn to Acts 6, and we're going to read from verse 8 through to the end of the chapter. But before we do so, let's ask for God's blessing.
Our Father in heaven, we thank You for the Scriptures that holy men wrote as they were borne along by the Holy Spirit. We thank You for a word that is without error — perfect in all that it intends to convey to us about Yourself and ourselves, about the world in which we live, about the way of salvation, about future glory. We ask, Holy Spirit, that You would illuminate our minds. Help us to understand. Help us to read, mark, learn, inwardly digest, and all for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
This is God's word:
“And Stephen, full of grace and power, was performing great wonders and signs among the people. But some men from what was called the Synagogue of the Freedmen, including both Cyrenians and Alexandrians, and some from Cilicia...”
[Remember Saul of Tarsus? Paul is from Cilicia]
“...and Asia, rose up and argued with Stephen. And yet they were unable to cope with the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking. Then they secretly induced men to say, ‘We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God.’ And they stirred up the people, the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him and dragged him away, and brought him before the Council. And they put forward false witnesses who said, ‘This man incessantly speaks against this holy place, and the Law; for we have heard him say that this Nazarene, Jesus, will destroy this place and alter the customs which Moses handed down to us.’ And fixing their gaze on him, all who were sitting in the Council saw his face like the face of an angel.”
Thus far, God's holy and inerrant word.
Now we were hearing this morning a sweet love letter from Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones to Bethan, his wife, written in 1939. But a little later he was to embark on a series of expositions of The Acts of the Apostles. A few of those sermons are available in print, and commenting on this particular section of Acts 6 and beginning at verse 8 and the story of Stephen and the persecution, the wave of persecution that will result in the martyrdom of Stephen, he makes this comment that “the church had to fight for her life from the very beginning. From the moment it was born, the church has had to face a world that has done everything it could to exterminate it.”
We can't underestimate the ferocity of the antagonism, the malevolence of the attacks of the Sanhedrin court in particular against the church of Jesus Christ in these early months since Pentecost.
It's hard now to be absolutely certain how much time has elapsed since Pentecost, but hardly a year. Possibly just a few months have passed since Pentecost, and already we've seen this wave, and now another wave, of persecution. Peter and John have spent a night in prison. They were imprisoned a second time, along with the other apostles. They’d been beaten, flogged, told not to preach any more in the name of Jesus. You remember their extraordinary response to that, that they must obey God rather than men.
We’re reminded of course of what the church father, Tertullian, would later write, that “the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Jim Stewart was reminding me on Friday about the church in China, and one of the things that they ask us not to pray for is that persecution would be eradicated in China; because it is out of persecution, it is out of that hardship and difficulty, that the church has grown exponentially in the twentieth century.
Of all the characters in the New Testament, I think that Stephen is undoubtedly one of the most fascinating and interesting. We don't know a whole lot about Stephen. Stephen was to emerge on the stage of redemptive history for a brief period of time like a shining star that shines and burns itself out in the night sky. His ministry lasts a few months, perhaps; barely has Stephen come to embrace the gospel, the fulfillment of all of the promises of his beloved Old Testament Scriptures, as he sees those prophecies fulfilled in Jesus the Nazarene, and barely has he embraced Jesus than his blood will be shed...the first martyr of the church.
And Luke, as he describes to us Stephen (and he's only got a few chapters to do it — he's only got maybe a couple of chapters to describe the influence of this bright star called Stephen)... there's something even from a literary point of view...apart from any other consideration, even from a literary point of view there's a fascinating thing that Luke seems to do, because before he tells us about the death of Stephen, he, as it were, raises Stephen to the highest level to gain our sympathy, because the martyrdom of Stephen will then come in all its appalling horror that this godly man...this godly man should meet such a violent death at the hand of his enemies.
He is described earlier in verse 5 as Luke is describing the seven almoners, the seven evangelists, the seven helpers who distribute the aid to the widows...the Hellenistic and Hebrew widows in the church...as he is describing the seven men who have been appointed, he pauses for a moment give a little further description of Stephen, more than the others. And that, of course, because Stephen is now going to be the focus of our attention.
He says in verse 5 that “...they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit.” And then in verse 8, he elaborates and calls Stephen “full of grace and power.” And then in verse 10: “And yet they...” [that is, his enemies] “...were unable to cope with the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking.”
So there are two things I want us to see tonight as we begin to unfold the narrative which is Stephen. The next two sermons will be on chapter 7 as we unfold this very, very significant sermon of Stephen. He gives us a key to the understanding both of the Old Testament and of the New Testament. He gives us a key that helps us see how the New Testament builds upon the foundation of the Old Testament, and helps us to see those aspects of the Old Testament which have been fulfilled in Jesus Christ, which have come to an end in Jesus Christ, and those aspects which continue. It's an immensely important chapter from the point of view of — and let me use a big word, hermeneutics — from the point of view of the interpretation of the New Testament and of the Old Testament. More of that in the next two sermons, but for now I want us to see the character of Stephen, and I want us to see the malevolence of his enemies.
I. The character of Stephen and the malevolence of his enemies:
Luke gives us a six-fold description of the godliness of Stephen. He tells us first of all that (in verse 5) he was “a man full of faith.”
Now, every believer must have faith. If you don't have faith, you’re not a believer, you’re not a Christian. Every Christian must have faith. We learnt in Sunday School [I never went to Sunday School, but you went to Sunday School, most of you, and you learnt “F-A-I-T-H: Forsaking All I Take Him.”] I cast my all upon Jesus Christ. Forsaking everything else, trusting only in the finished work of Jesus Christ, I embrace Him. I come to appreciate who He is and what He has done for me, and I rest completely and utterly upon Him. Without faith it is impossible to please God. Every Christian has faith. We are justified, regarded as in a right and saving relationship with God through the instrumentality of faith alone in Jesus Christ alone.
But it's one thing to have faith, and it's another thing to have a strong experience of that faith, and most of us here this evening will readily admit that though we believe in Jesus... ‘I believe,’ we say, ‘but help Thou my unbelief. I believe, if you nail me to the corner, I'm trusting in Jesus; but there are times when I struggle, and there are times when I doubt, and there are times when I'm beset with all kinds of problems. There are times when God seems to draw a veil over the light of His countenance and I fail to experience the warmth of His embrace as I do on other occasions.”
The assurance of faith can waver and differ from one believer to another, and Luke seems to be saying to us here not just that Stephen had faith in Jesus, but that he was full of faith. He had strong faith. Didn't Jesus make the distinction of those who had strong faith and the disciples in the boat in the storm in the Sea of Galilee, who had weak faith? They had faith, but it was weak faith.
Let me say that even weak faith is a saving faith, so long as that faith is rooted in Jesus Christ. Even if it is as thin as a spider's thread, so long as it is rooted in Christ, it is saving faith.
Here's a man who's full of faith, full of the assurance of faith. Here's a man who is ready to forsake all, and that's exactly what he's going to do in the next chapter. He's going to give up his life. You know, we sing, don't we...it's our Christian anthem in the Presbyterian church, in the PCA... we sing Luther's A Mighty Fortress:
“Let goods and kindred go; this mortal life also.
The body they may kill; God's truth abideth still.
His kingdom is forever.”
We sing that. “Let goods and kindred go.”
Well, I can see folks here this evening who have let goods go. A year ago today they lost everything. I can't even begin to imagine what that is like. (A little bit, you understand, with my laptop, but that's another story!) But can't begin to understand.... It's one thing to sit here or stand here and sing “let goods and kindred go; this mortal life also. The body they may kill".... it's another thing to go out there and prepare to live like that.
And you've got to understand that Stephen at this point knew full well what the consequences of standing up for the truth of the gospel and of being critical, especially of some of the things that were now taking place in the temple that, in his understanding, had been fulfilled in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. He knew all too well what the consequences of that would be, and yet he was full of faith.
He was full, not just of faith (in verse 5), but of the Holy Spirit. He was full of the Holy Spirit.
Now we've seen already how Luke employs that little phrase full of the Holy Spirit, or, they were filled with the Holy Sprit. On the Day of Pentecost when the Spirit was poured forth as the representative agent of Jesus Christ, on the Day of Pentecost they were all filled with the Holy Spirit. We read in Acts 4:31 that they were all filled with the Holy Spirit again. We read of Peter, after he had been released from prison and he's before the Sanhedrin and giving an account of himself (in Acts 4:8), again we read he was filled with the Holy Spirit. And it seems to be on one level that every Christian, every believer, everyone who trusts in Jesus Christ, is in one sense filled with the Holy Spirit in the sense that we can't have half of the Holy Spirit, or a quarter of the Holy Spirit, or a tenth of the Holy Spirit. We have the whole Holy Spirit, because apart from the Spirit, we are not His. But in times of particular stress, and in times of particular trials, it seems as though the Holy Spirit comes again equips and energizes and fills and challenges and draws that believer close to Christ. And it seems to me that that's a part of what is being said here: that Stephen was a man full of the Holy Spirit because God was preparing him for a particular task to do, to stand up for Jesus.
It was a sign of his growth; it was a sign of his maturity. It was a sign that Stephen was a man clothed with the armor of God. It was a sign that he was on fire for God, that he was resilient and steadfast, and strong, and trusting in the promises of God. He was full of faith. He was full of the Holy Spirit.
And thirdly, in verse 8, he was full of grace. In the sense of graciousness, I think; in the sense that he was winsome; in the sense that–well, F.F. Bruce uses the word–he had charm. Now, I'm not sure that we know what charm is anymore, but if that rings a bell with you, he was winsome. There was a sweetness about him. Stephen was a man that...it would be hard to fall out with Stephen. (It would be easy to fall out with Paul!)
He was full of power (verse 8). He was full of grace and power, and Luke goes on to explain what he means by that, because he tells us that he was performing great wonders and signs among the people. Now, those are code terms, you understand. Luke has already employed them. He has already spoken in Acts 2 on the Day of Pentecost that as a consequence of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit the apostles were able to perform signs and wonders, things that would blow you away, as demonstrations of the power of God in the midst of His people. Paul and Barnabas in chapter 14 again will be described as performing signs and wonders. Paul will say in II Corinthians 12:12 that these are signs or marks of the apostle.
But Stephen is not an apostle. And neither is Philip. And that leads some to hold the theory that the signs and wonders are marks of the apostle, and cease with the apostles. They point to this passage and sometimes will indicate that that theory doesn't hold as much weight as we sometimes give it. But it seems to me that Stephen and Philip are representatives here of the apostles. They've been appointed by the apostles. They are, I think, in the technical language of the New Testament, evangelists full of power, demonstrating the power of God.
And then, fifthly and sixthly in verse 10, full of wisdom and the Spirit. “They were unable to cope with the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking.” He had an eloquence; he had an understanding. That's remarkable, isn't it? Because Stephen had never been to college–as far as we know. Certainly he’d never been to any seminary. It was something given to him by the power of the Holy Spirit, and Luke is describing for us here the godly character of Stephen, this immensely significant man.
II. The antagonism of the world
And then by way of contrast he describes the antagonism of the world. John Calvin, writing a commentary on I Peter once wrote that “God has so ordered the church from the very beginning that death is the way to life, and the cross the way to victory.” And you see that unfolded in the ministry of Stephen, in the development now of the history of redemption on the pages of Acts. “The new battle for the church has begun,” Calvin says in his commentary. There's a battle on here. It's a battle not against flesh and blood; it's a battle against principalities and powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world. It's a reminder to us that you and I live in a world where the devil is exercising his hostility and enmity against all that is Christ's.
Stephen had evidently been preaching and teaching in the synagogue, giving the exposition, perhaps, to the reading of the Old Testament Scriptures. Perhaps one can imagine–and this is a little bit of conjecture now–but one can perhaps imagine Stephen reading a passage, say, from one of the Servant Songs in Isaiah, perhaps the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah, and then beginning to expound on that passage how that passage was fulfilled in the person and ministry and work of Jesus Christ, pointing them to all that Jesus had accomplished on the cross. ‘And it arose amongst the Hellenistic Jews who attended the Synagogue of the Freedmen....’ (Is it one synagogue? Is it five synagogues? We’re not sure. The New American seems to suggest it is one synagogue; others suggest it is five.) And it arouses this immense hostility, and they do three things, according to Luke.
They first of all, in verse 9, they begin to dispute with Stephen. “Some of the men from what was called the Synagogue of the Freedmen...rose up and argued with Stephen.” They argued with him. They disputed with him. They called into question his interpretation of the Old Testament, and the interpretation he was giving to Jesus the Nazarene.
And then, in verse 11, “They secretly induced men to say, ‘We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God.’” A smear campaign...perhaps utilizing bribery to pay certain individuals to come and testify, and say that they had heard him blaspheme against Moses and against God.
And then in verse 13, they drag “...false witnesses who said, ‘This man incessantly speaks against this holy place and the Law...’” Against the temple and the Law. What does that remind you of? As you read that passage, as Luke is describing the way these events unfold in the history of Stephen, what does it remind you of? Because Luke... you remember this is Part 2 of Luke's writings. He's already written Part 1, and in Part 1 he has said something very similar about the way this same court, this same Sanhedrin court, dealt with Jesus. It's no accident that Luke wants us to see that connection, that there is something Jesus-like, there is something Christ-like about Stephen in his character and his winsomeness, in his attractiveness, in his ability, in the fact that he was filled with the Holy Spirit. And just as they persecuted Jesus and put Him to death, so they will do to Stephen also.
And two charges are brought against him, one in relation to this holy place, in relation to the temple. Now, of all the places in the world, the most holy place for the Jew and for the Sanhedrin was the temple; and to speak against the temple would have raised in the Sanhedrin the most intense ire.
One can imagine from what Luke says that Stephen had in fact been quoting words of Jesus. You remember what Jesus said about the temple: that in three days He would destroy this temple, and in three days He would build it again. Herod's temple had by that time already taken 46 years to build, and Jesus was saying He would rebuild it in three days! Of course He was speaking about His death and resurrection. He was the temple. There were aspects of the life and ministry of the temple, the sacrifices and so on, the lambs and goats and turtledoves and so on, that was now redundant. It had been fulfilled in Jesus Christ. It would be done away with. The veil of the temple had been rent asunder.
“I will destroy this temple, but I will rebuild it in three days.” He is the temple! He's all the sacrifice that we need. If we want to come into the Holy Place, we come into fellowship with Jesus Christ. If you want to go where only the high priest could go once a year, you come into fellowship and union and communion with Jesus Christ. “Where two or three are gathered together in My name, there I am in the midst of My people,” Jesus says.
And they accused him of disrespecting the Law. Well, no doubt Stephen may well have disrespected interpretations of the Law that had been added by the Jews that were extraneous to the revelation of God in the Old Testament. But remember what Jesus said. As the very foundation and basis of His entire ministry, in the Sermon on the Mount, in that well-known epitomizing text in Matthew 5:17...“I've come not to destroy the Law and the prophets, but I've come to fulfill it.” I've come to uphold it; I've come to sustain it; I've come, Jesus is saying, to give the Law and the prophets the very highest honor imaginable.
Now we’ll see in the coming weeks exactly what it is that Stephen intends us to understand by fulfilling the Law, and the way in which certain aspects of the Law are fulfilled in Christ, and certain aspects of the Law continue. We’ll come to appreciate the tensions involved in traversing from Malachi into Matthew, and into The Acts of the Apostles as the history of redemption unfolds as we go from old covenant to new covenant.
But again, for now Luke wants us to see that the very charges that are leveled against Stephen of blasphemy are the very charges that were leveled against Jesus. And as they gazed into his face, Luke says (isn't it an extraordinary statement in verse 15?):
“As they were fixing their gaze on him, all who were sitting in the Council saw his face like the face of an angel.”
Now some of you are beginning to ask the question, “What does an angel look like?” And if you’re going down that rabbit trail, let me pull you back quickly, because that's not where Luke wants you to go. Luke wants you to ask a different question: “Who else in the Bible is described as having a face that shines like an angel?” And it is Moses, of course, when he came down from the mountain carrying the tablets of stone on which was the Law. And far from disrespecting the Law, Luke is saying what we have here is another Moses. He in fact is interpreting Moses, and upholding the Law of Moses, because like Moses he is being, as it were, up in the mountains face to face with God. And I think Luke wants us to appreciate that the explanation for the godliness of Stephen and the fact that his face shines like an angel is because he has spent time with God. As the twenty-seventh Psalm puts it:
“One thing have I asked for; that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in His temple.”
What did Jim Elliot say? That “he is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.” And as Stephen fellowshipped with his Lord, and his face shone like the face of an angel, he was ready to give what he cannot keep, to gain what he cannot lose. And that's the perspective that Luke wants us to have...to live like that, sub specie eternitatis, in the light of eternity.
Father, once again we bless You, thank You, for Your word, and this word about Stephen; and we pray that You would hide it within our hearts, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Please stand; receive the Lord's benediction.
Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.
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