As the disciples proclaimed Jesus, the Jewish authorities got mad. They jailed Peter and John (Acts 4:1–22). Then, they flogged them and ordered them to be silent (5:40). Finally, their rage focused on an outspoken Christian named Stephen.
Stephen’s great courage began with humble service. When the church sought for men to help feed widows, Stephen, a man “of good reputation, full of the Spirit and of wisdom” was appointed (6:3). He soon grew in stature. “Stephen, full of grace and power” was performing signs (6:8). He preached Christ publicly in the synagogues, and reasoned effectively with the most educated among them (6:9-10).
Note that brethren who preach and teach often start by holding the door and helping pass the communion plate!
The leaders of the synagogue “were unable to cope with the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking” (6:10). Rather than confess Jesus, they brought Stephen before the Jewish Council and leveled false charges.
Stephen’s sermon is the longest Luke records, so it must be important. Stephen only obliquely responds to their charges (6:13). Stephen does not try to convert them. Their rejection of Jesus is obvious at this point. Stephen goes through the whole Old Testament to explain the roots of their rejection of Jesus, and to warn them of the wrath they were storing up for themselves.
Stephen points out that throughout history, God sent saviors to His people, but each time a large segment of His people rejected them. God gave the land to the descendants of Abraham (7:2-8). Those same patriarchs became jealous and sold Joseph into Egyptian slavery (7:9-10); nevertheless God made Joseph prosper and through him saved the descendants of Abraham from extinction (7:11-16). When Israel’s situation in Egypt turned sour, God sent Moses (7:17-23). Nevertheless, Israel rejected Moses and refused to follow him (7:24-37), refused to listen to the words God had given to him (7:38-43), refused to worship exclusively at the temple he built according to God’s pattern (7:44-44). Stephen reaches his climax:
You men who are stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears are always resisting the Holy Spirit; you are doing just as your fathers did. Which one of the prophets did you fathers not persecute? They killed those who had previously announced the coming of the Righteous One, whose betrayers and murderers you have now become; you who received the law as ordained by angels, and yet did not keep it (7:51-53).
Note that brethren who teach such powerful messages have studied! Stephen’s ability to speak loudly against the Sanhedrin face-to-face came from hours spent quietly in his room with his Bible. Courage comes from moral clarity, and moral clarity comes from knowledge of God’s ways and God’s word.
These accusations infuriated the Sanhedrin. “They were cut to the quick,” just like the Jews on the day of Pentecost (2:37), but in the opposite direction. Stephen must have suspected what was coming next, but he did not waver for a moment. “Being full of the Holy Spirit” he was granted a vision of “Jesus standing at the right hand of God” (7:55-56), a visual confirmation of that fact which he had heretofore accepted solely on faith, that Jesus was the Christ the Son of God, and that He was not only resurrected, but had ascended to the right hand of God, serving as Lord and high priest, ruling over all things and interceding for the saints through His blood (Psalm 110:2, Ephesians 1:22-23, Hebrews 1:8). The Sanhedrin said Jesus was dead; Stephen knew Jesus was alive and reigning!
With such a glimpse of the promised glory that awaited him, Stephen did not get upset. His face was bright (6:15). He was not full of dread but anticipation, saying, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” (7:59). Moreover, he said, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” (7:60). Even at this brutal end, Stephen’s goal was to preach gospel truth to all, including his enemies, so that they could enjoy the same hope of salvation. May we learn to pray for our enemies, and to forgive those who trespass against us (Matthew 5:43-48, 6:14-15, Luke 23:34)! How wonderful that Paul, who was part of this murderous crowd, did not get what justice demanded. Just think of how many were converted to Jesus due to Stephen’s courage and forbearance!
Stoning was not a quick death. Stephen focused on Jesus, not the stones. He simply “fell asleep” with Jesus’ name on his lips. Note that after the resurrection of Jesus, no Bible passage speaks of the death of a Christian, but uses the euphemism, “fell asleep.” Sleep is nothing to fear, it is something to embrace. It is a reminder of the victory over death provided to all who are in Christ, that those who sleep in Christ shall soon awake to glory!
May the courage of Stephen be present in the church today! —John Guzzetta