The Beauty of a Full Life
|Acts 6:1-7:2a, 44-60|
The life of Stephen is proof that the impact of a person’s life has nothing to do with length but everything to do with quality. Stephen’s life and ministry though short as a meteor streaking across the sky was nevertheless noteworthy and important.
The passage this morning represents a turning point in the Book of Acts. Up to this point, Luke has focused his narrative upon the Jerusalem church and Peter has been the leading figure in his capacity as Apostle to the Jews. But, looming on the horizon is another great figure, the Apostle Paul. He is introduced to us in 7:58:
[They] 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.
After his conversion on the road to Damascus, Saul (later known as Paul) will become the leading figure in the Acts and the focus will shift from Jerusalem to the Gentile world.
Stephen bridges the gap between Peter and Paul. Peter takes the Gospel to the Jews, Paul will carry the Gospel to the Gentiles. Stephen brings the Gospel to Jews who come from Gentile nations.
Stephen was, in many ways, a forerunner to the Apostle Paul. Stephen preached to Hellenistic Jews (Jews who spoke the Greek language and adopted Greek customs). Paul, his Hellenistic countryman, always went to the synagogue first whenever he came to a new city.
Stephen’s ministry, though brief, was essential to God’s plan to evangelize the world. Acts 8:1:
And Saul approved of their killing him. On that day a great persecution broke out against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria.
Stephen’s ministry and death were the catalysts to get the Jerusalem Church out of Jerusalem and scatted into Judea and Samaria. And, through Paul to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).
It’s should be no surprise to us that the world doesn’t recognize the greatness of Stephen. The world judges greatness by popularity, by power, by prestige, by material wealth. Thus, they fail to grasp true greatness. Let us not make the same mistake. Let us consider the greatness of this man Stephen.
His name from the Greek “stephanos” = “a crown of victory” given to victors in battle or athletic competition. He would soon receive the crown of martyrdom.
The passage lists five marks of greatness in Stephen.
He was . . .
1. “Full of the Holy Spirit” (6:3)
2. “Full of wisdom” (vs. 3)
3. “Full of faith” (vs. 5)
4. “Full of grace” (vs. 8)
5. “Full of power” (vs. 8)
That’s a full life, and so I’ve titled this message “The Beauty of a Full Life.” May I ask, what are we full of? Ourselves? Bitterness? Envy? Fear? Stephen was “full of the Holy Spirit”. That is, God had total control of his life continually.
As we consider Stephen, let’s first look at . . .
The Service that He Rendered (6:1-15)
It was practical (6:1-7).
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 (vs. 1)
Stephen was chosen for the very practical ministry of overseeing the daily distribution of food. From the very beginning the Jerusalem church had cared for the less-fortunate members. The “daily distribution” provided necessary food for the poor widows of the congregation.
At this time, everybody in the church were Jews, but there were two different types of Jews in Jerusalem and they differed from each other in language and custom. There were Hebraic Jews. They were the “native-born”. They had been born and raised in Palestine and spoke Aramaic. There were the Hellenistic Jews. They were the Jews that came from foreign countries. They spoke Greek mostly and accepted some Greek customs. The Hebraic Jews looked down their noses at the Hellenistic Jews. They were suspicious of their Greek ways and language.
Some of this prejudice had, apparently, worked its way into the church. The “Hellenistic Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food” (Acts 6:1).
It may have been true or it may have been imagined, but, nevertheless, it was causing division in the church and had to be dealt with.
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 (6:2-6).
The Apostles say, “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables” (vs. 2). Not that waiting on tables was beneath them, or that the daily distribution wasn’t important. It was important, but it wasn’t what they had been called by God to do. So the Apostles suggest that the church appoint seven men to oversee the very practical ministry of the daily distribution of food.
“And we will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word” (vs. 4).
Freed from the distraction of the daily distribution, they could focus on the ministry that God had called them to.
The seven men that were chosen for this ministry all have Greek names. The Hellenistic Jews’ widows were being neglected and the church chose seven Hellenistic Jews to deal with the problem.
Stephen and the others were chosen to “wait on tables” (vs. 2). A man of Stephen’s talents could have resisted the call. He was a great preacher and a talented debater, he could have rejected the job as “too small”, but he placed himself at God’s disposal to do whatever was needed and God honored him be giving him a greater ministry.
I wonder, do we have Stephen’s willingness to do small things if that is what God calls us to? Are we willing to put ourselves at God’s disposal and do whatever needs to be done, no matter how insignificant?
His service was practical and . . .
It was powerful (vss. 8, 7:2-53).
Stephen was chosen to care for the widows, but when Luke describes Stephen’s impact he doesn’t talk about how well he waits on tables, he talks about his performing “great wonders and signs among the people” (vs. 8).
Stephen had shown his willingness to be used by God in any capacity and God had honored him by giving him a greater ministry. Although he is not one of the Twelve, he begins to perform signs and wonders; the first non-apostle to do so. Probably these wonders and signs came about as part of his responsibility to care for the poor. I imagine that miracles of healing play a big role.
The power of Stephen’s ministry is seen in the wonders he performed and in the word he preached (7:2-53). The power of his preaching comes from the fact that he preached from the Bible. His address before the Sanhedrin is essentially a review of the history of Israel. Beginning with Abraham through Isaac and Jacob, on to Joseph, then Moses, to Joshua, to David and on to the prophets; Stephen reviews for these men the history of God’s dealing with his Chosen People and their stubbornness and disobedience. Stephen certainly knew his Bible!
He finishes with a practical application designed to drive the point home to his audience:
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” (Acts 7:51-53).
Not exactly the way to make friends and influence people. But Stephen was not interested in their acceptance or popularity—he was interested in the truth. And, because he relied on the Bible he was powerful.
The service he rendered was practical. It was powerful. And . . .
It was provocative (6:9-14)
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.”
History tells us that there were around 480 synagogues in Jerusalem during the First Century. Some of them were Hebraic—made up of native-born Jews, and some of them were Hellenistic—made up of foreign Jews. The Synagogue of the Freedmen, whose members opposed Stephen was a Hellenistic synagogue. It members were the descendants of Jewish slaves who had been freed years ago by Emperor Pompey.
The list of the home countries of the members of this synagogue is given in verse 9. Cyrene and Alexandria were important centers in Northern Africa. Cilicia and Asia were part of modern-day Turkey. Significantly the city of Tarsus, Saul’s hometown was in Cilicia. Thus, it is possible that Saul’s first exposure to the Gospel of God’s grace came from the preaching of Stephen.
The opposition to Stephen’s preaching began with argumentation. They “began to argue with Stephen” (vs. 9). This is more than just a fight. It was formal debate. The subject of the debate was undoubtedly the Messiahship of Jesus of Nazareth and his death and resurrection.
But they could not stand up against the wisdom the Spirit gave him as he spoke (vs. 10).
They lost the debate, not because Stephen was so smart or because he had graduated from seminary. They could not stand up to his argument because of the wisdom given him by the Holy Spirit.
The opposition against Stephen took the form of argumentation, and when that failed, they resorted to accusation.
“Then they secretly persuaded some men to say, “We have heard Stephen speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God” (vss. 10-11).
For “persuaded” read “paid”. They paid off some men to lie and accuse Stephen of blasphemy against Moses and God.
Then they turned to agitation. They “stirred up the people and the elders and the teachers of the law” (vs. 12). Previously, the chief priest and elders had been afraid to arrest the Apostles because of their popularity with the people. But, now Stephen’s accusers had turned the people against him.
They have him arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin where the opposition takes the form of misrepresentation of Stephen’s words.
“This fellow never stops speaking against Moses and against the law. For we heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us” (vss. 13-14).
The clever thing here is that there is a grain of truth in their accusations. Jesus had said, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days” (John 2:19), but “the temple he had spoken of was his body” (vs. 21). And Jesus had preached the end of the human customs they had built up around the law, but of the law he said, “For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished” (Matthew 5:18).
Stephen had merely been echoing the teaching of his Lord, and they had taken his words, twisting them and using them as an accusation against him.
If anyone could understand what Stephen felt at this moment, it was the Lord Jesus. He had been falsely accused, false witnesses had twisted his words and misrepresented him. Jesus could understand how Stephen felt because the same things had happened to him. And, let me say, Jesus understands how you feel when you are falsely accused, when people twist your words and misrepresent you.
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin (Hebrews 4:15).
Next, let’s consider the greatness of Stephen in . . .
The Savior He Revealed (6:8, 15, 7:54-60)
He revealed Christ in his living. Verse 8 of chapter 6 describes Stephen as being “full of grace”. This word grace (Greek “charis”) is an interesting one. We know that it means “unmerited favor” as it is used by Paul to speak of God’s unmerited favor toward us. But, if we were using this word charis in the days before Paul, we would most likely use it to describe beauty, symmetry, elegance, loveliness. It was the word used to speak about a lovely woman, a stirring speech, a beautiful work of art. This is the sense of the word here. It means that Stephen’s life was full of the beauty of Christ. There was a quality of Stephen’s life that one can only describe as “graceful”.
We see it again in vs. 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.
The radiance of Christ seen in his countenance. He glowed! The members of the Council would doubtless have thought of Moses:
When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the covenant law in his hands, he was not aware that his face was radiant because he had spoken with the Lord (Exodus 34:29).
It is as if God were saying to them, “This man is not against Moses, he’s like Moses.
May I ask, has the shortage of grace in our lives made us repel people, or has the overflow of the grace in our lives made us attract people to the Savior?
There is a story about a young Salvation Army girl at an outdoor meeting. She saw a man standing on the edge of the meeting with a very sour expression on his face. She went up to him and she asked him, “Sir, are you saved?” To which he replied, “Yes, I hope that I am.” The girl turned and shouted to her leader, “He says he hopes he’s saved, but look at that face!”
When people look into our faces do they see the radiance of Christ?
Stephen revealed Christ in his living and . . .
He revealed Christ in his dying (7:54-60).
Not only was it Stephen’s great privilege to die for Christ he also died like Christ:
He committed his soul to God.
While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” (vs. 59).
Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46).
He forgave his murderers.
Then he fell on his knees and cried out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (vs. 60)
Jesus said, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
Sometimes I wonder, would I have grace to face death? Yes. But that is not what I need now. I need grace to face life. When I need grace for dying, it will be given to me when I need it, just as Stephen was given grace to die a martyr’s death.
“Look,” he said, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (vs. 56).
In the Bible, Jesus is always pictured sitting at God the Father’s right hand, but here he is standing. What’s going on? Jesus Christ rises to his feet to welcome his faithful martyr! I can picture Jesus applauding and saying, “Well done, good and faithful servant! Enter into the joy of your Lord.”
“When he had said this, he fell asleep” (vs. 60).
Stephen died a terrible death—pummeled to death by stones. And when the final stone struck home, Stephen died. No! Stephen lives on! When the believer dies his soul lives on with Christ in glory. That’s why Paul could say, “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:55).
Jim Elliot said in 1946, “I seek not a long life, but a full one like you, Lord Jesus.” On January 8, 1965, Jim Elliot and his friends were killed by the Auca Indians, the very people they had come to preach the Gospel to.
Our assessment might be, “What a waste! Such a young life cut short. Is this what you get for service to God? An early death?” But our assessment would be wrong.
The death of Stephen, the manner of his dying, was seen by Saul of Tarsus. Saul was later to have an encounter with Christ of his own. At that time Jesus said to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It is hard for you to kick against the goads” (Acts 26:14). I believe that one of the goads was the death of Stephen. Saul saw how Stephen had died and he never forgot it. “We owe the Apostle Paul to the prayer of Stephen” – St. Augustine.
So, a waste? The death of Stephen gave us the apostle Paul and the salvation of multitudes of Gentiles. The death of Jim Elliot and his friends led to the conversion of 1,000’s of Auca Indians.
It has been said of Stephen that he was, “In life, faithful; In death, graceful; After death, fruitful”
The beauty of a full life.