To the End of the Earth: To the Ends of the Earth (14): Angelic Stephen

Sermon by Derek Thomas on August 27, 2006

Acts 6:8-15

The Lord’s Day
Evening

August 27,
2006

Acts 6:8-15

Angelic Stephen

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.

Let’s pray.

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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