“Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the full number of disciples and said “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit…”
So let’s look at Stephen the man. He was a disciple, a follower of Jesus, but not one of the original 12 disciples. He became a disciple after the church began. It says that Stephen was a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit. This would have been a requirement that the apostles looked for in the seven men they were choosing. When I was studying this text and looking up what those requirements would have looked like, this is what I came across: “Being full of the Holy Spirit would mean their daily walk under the control of the Holy Spirit had continued for a long enough time to produce the evident fruits of the Spirit.” So Stephen was known for his love, his joy, his peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Those things were consistently evident in his life and he was chosen because of them. Now why did they call Stephen for this task? What was happening?
The text says the Hellenist widows were being neglected. There were two distinct groups here, the Jews, and the Hellenists, who weren’t native Jews. This text tells us that the church had organized a feeding program for feeding the needy, and in spite of this good work, there was a group of people who were not being cared for in the same manner as the other. This neglect was not deliberate but merely an oversight. The Apostles were leading the church, and they were preaching and teaching, and the church grew and grew. And the native Jews, the people they knew, they were doing a great job at feeding the needy and the widows they knew, but with the number growing and the Hellenists merging with this group, the widows were unintentionally neglected.
So the Apostles, the ones preaching and teaching, gathered together the disciples and addressed this issue. The Apostles picked out seven among them that were in a position to step up and help lead.
So Stephen was chosen. Verse 8 says, “And Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people.” Verse 10 says, “They could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking.”
So 5 things to note about Stephen the man:
He was full of Faith. (6:5)
He was full of the Holy Spirit. (6:5)
He was full of grace. (6:8)
He was full of Power. (6:8)
And he was full of Wisdom. (6:10)
Stephen the Message
Follow with me at verse 8: “And Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people. Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen, and of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of those from Cilicia and Asia, rose up and disputed with Stephen. But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking. Then they secretly instigated men who said ‘we have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.’ And they stirred up the people and the elders and scribes, and they came upon him and seized him and brought him before the council, and they set up false witnesses who said, ‘this man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law, for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and will change the customs that Moses delivered to us.’ ”
Stephen, this man who was full of faith, the Spirit, grace, power, and wisdom, was now being accused by the Jewish people, the chosen people of Israel, for speaking against Moses and God, against the laws and customs handed down by Moses.
The high priest, the top dog, the supreme religious leader, said to Stephen: “Are these things so?”
And Stephen just lets go. He just pours out for an entire chapter against these people of Israel. This righteous Jewish people. He walks them through THEIR history, the history of the Israelites, who time after time, persecuted each and every prophet that God sent to them. He talks about Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and Joseph, and Moses, and Aaron, and Solomon. He ends with this: “Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered, you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.”
We are starting to see a pattern of boldness within these disciples. Before the most important people, in front of the ones who decide their futures, whether they live or die, these Apostles choose boldness and courage.
Stephen the Martyr
As you can imagine, this didn’t go over well. Which brings us to Stephen the martyr. Verse 54 says “when they heard these things they were enraged…they rushed together at him. They cast him out of the city and stoned him…and as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Stephen became the first Christian martyr; the first person killed for Jesus Christ.
This is a huge turning point in the early church, and something that we’ll talk about in the next few weeks. But let’s look back at Stephen as the man, the message, and the martyr, and let’s look at the story that his life tells.
Stephen shows us that there is one story. There is one story worth living for and ultimately worth dying for. And this story is triumphant and heroic, but look at it from a bigger picture. Stephen isn’t triumphant and heroic. He’s just following the example of the one before Him. Stephen is living out the story of Jesus. Of Jesus the man, the message, and the martyr.
Here’s what Pastor Beau Hughes has to say about it: “Like Stephen, Jesus was filled with the Spirit and had a ministry of unrivaled wisdom and authority. Like Stephen, Jesus was accused of blasphemy before God. Like Stephen, Jesus was given an unjust trial and refuted his accusers with power and wisdom. Like Stephen, Jesus was led out of the city and executed in an excruciating and horrendous way: crucifixion. Like Stephen, Jesus, as he was being crucified, as he was being murdered, prayed for forgiveness for the very ones who were murdering him. Stephen is just following Jesus' example.”
Stephen had 30 seconds. He had 30 seconds to tell the world the story he was living for. What story are you living for? What is it you want people to know about you? What do you want to be remembered by? The story you’re living for shapes your identity. Stephen lived for the story Jesus died for, and Stephen died for the story Jesus lives in. Are you living out the story Jesus died for and lives in?
“We don’t think much about how our stories will affect the world, but they do. People learn what’s worth living for and what’s worth dying for by the stories they watch us live. I want to teach our people how to get scary close, and more, how to be brave. I want to teach them that love is worth what it costs.”-Donald Miller