B. This was something symbolic 1. This year’s Oscar for the best supporting actor went to J.K. Simmons, for his role in the film Whiplash.
2. Simmons surprised the audience during his acceptance speech, when he encouraged everyone to call their mom and dad.
3. He said, “…Don’t text. Don't e-mail. Call 'em on the phone. Tell them you love them, and thank them, and listen to them for as long as they want to talk to you."1 4. In some ways, Stephen is a supporting actor in the drama of the book of Acts, and like J.K. Simmons, perhaps it is his speech that gets the most attention.
6. Though Stephen’s appearance in the story is short; it is significant. His martyrdom at the end of chapter 7 is the first for the church, and his legacy is clearly seen throughout the book in the ministry of the man who played a part in his death – Saul of Tarsus.
7. Though Stephen is a bit of a shooting star, we would do well to watch him closely in the short time that he appears on the horizon of the Word of God.
8. Peter and Paul may be the main characters in the story of the Spirit-powered church, but Stephen is a strong candidate for the best supporting actor.
9. In chapter 7, the Holy Spirit shows the importance of Stephen’s words, by recording for us his entire message before the Jewish council – the longest speech or sermon recorded in the whole book of Acts.
10. Before we look at what Stephen said, however, the latter part of chapter 6 shows us a bit of what Stephen did.
11. If you look closely at Stephen, you will see in his life a reflection of the Lord he saw at his death. Stephen reminds us of Jesus, and in so doing, he is a wonderful example for us to follow.
12. In many ways, the stories of our lives are comparably short, like Stephen’s. We appear for just a moment, and then we disappear from this life.
13. Yet, like Stephen, while we are here, we can live, and, yes, we can die, in a way that brings glory to Jesus.
14. Looking at Stephen’s story in Acts 6, I want you to notice with me firstly:
I. WHAT’S INSPIRING ABOUT STEPHEN’S ACTIVITY 1. Stephen is best known for his death. As I said, he died as the first Christian martyr. The word “martyr” is translated from a word that literally means “a witness”.
2. Understanding that, I agree with G. Campbell Morgan who said, “Stephen was a martyr before they stoned him.”2 3. Stephen’s ministry for Jesus is as inspiring as his martyrdom for Jesus. It is inspiring to us for a couple of reasons. For one thing, we see:
A. The extent of Stephen’s ministry
1. Earlier in this sixth chapter, Stephen was selected as one of the seven men who would fulfill the ministry of caring for the widows in the church.
2. It was a valuable and notable ministry for Stephen to be involved in. Feeding those widows and freeing up the apostles to pray and preach was a great work for Stephen to do.
3. No doubt, many would have stopped at that. Perhaps a lesser man might have said, “I feed the widows. That is my service. That is sufficient.” Not Stephen, however.
4. Look at verse 8. It says, “And Stephen, full of faith and power, did great wonders and miracles among the people.” 5. Up until this point, it was only the Apostles that were doing signs and wonders among the people. But here, Stephen, not an apostle, was also used by Jesus to do something supernatural.
6. At one level, Stephen reminds us that you don’t have to be a preacher or a pastor to do a great work for the Lord. The Lord Jesus can use anyone that makes themselves available to Him.
7. At another level, Stephen challenges us to consider whether or not there may be more that Jesus wants to do through you than what you are currently doing for Him.
8. Think of your life as a paintbrush. On one hand, you can do something very useful, like paint a wall, a doorframe, or a fence.
9. But that same brush, in the hands of a skilled artist, can do so much more. Sure, Michelangelo could use it to paint his kitchen, for instance. But he could also use it to paint theceiling of the Sistine Chapel.
10. You may be painting walls for Jesus, and that is fine. The walls need to be painted. But what if He wanted to use you for something bigger – something more than that? Are you willing to let Him?
11. Stephen inspires us to open ourselves up to be used in greater ways than we already are. We are inspired by the extent of his ministry. But consider also:
B. The explanation of Stephen’s ministry
1. How is it that Stephen was able to do these supernatural things, on top of the regular ministry that He performed within the church?
2. The answer to what was going on around Stephen is what was going on inside of Stephen. Take note of what we are told about Stephen in this chapter.
3. Back in verse 5, when Stephen was selected as the first deacon, it says that he was, “…a man full of faith and of the Holy Ghost…”
4. Then, we are told in verse 8, that Stephen was full of “…faith and power…” Some render that as “grace and power”.
5. Either way, the picture we get of Stephen is a man filled with faith in God, filled by the Spirit of God, and consequently, filled with the power of God.
6. In the Scripture, to be filled with something, is to be controlled by it – to be under its influence. Therefore, you could say that faith, the Holy Spirit, and the power of God controlled Stephen’s life.
7. What I want you to understand is that Stephen is not like some kind of superhero rising up in the pages of Scripture.
8. He was simply a man who allowed His life to be controlled by the Lord He trusted with all of his heart.
9. The gap between your Christianity and Stephen’s may seem wide. You may think there is no way you could be like Stephen.
10. But I ask you, has Stephen’s God changed? Is not the same Holy Spirit that empowered Stephen living inside of you? Is the resurrected Christ that Stephen served any less alive today than He was in Acts 6?
11. Growing up, my favorite basketball player was Patrick Ewing. I wanted to play like Patrick Ewing. I had a life-size poster of him in my room. For those who don’t know, Patrick Ewing is 7 foot tall.
12. I am 5’8’’ on a good day. No matter how hard I practiced and played, I was never going to be another Patrick Ewing.
13. But when we look at a man like Stephen, we realize that it was not any natural, physical gifts that set him apart. Stephen was simply filled with faith in God, the Spirit of God, and the power of God.
14. Those are not natural gifts that Stephen was born with. Those are spiritual gifts that Stephen received from God – gifts that are the common treasures available to all those who follow Christ.
15. That is what’s inspiring about Stephen’s activity. But I want you to consider with me secondly:
II. WHAT’S IMPORTANT ABOUT STEPHEN’S ADVERSARIES 1. The pattern in Acts has been that as soon as Jesus begins to work miraculously through His church, the devil begins to work maliciously against it.
2. Stephen is no exception. At the close of chapter 6, we read about a group of Hellenists (or Greek speaking Jews) that rose up in opposition to this man of God.
3. It is important for us to see how Stephen responded to these adversaries, and what he received from them.
4. Be assured, if you get serious about serving the Lord Jesus, you will become a target for the enemies of Jesus.
5. Look at Stephen’s adversaries in this text and consider with me:
A. The argument they lost to Stephen 1. As is the case throughout this book, it doesn’t seem to be the miracles that Stephen performed that caused his adversaries to rise up. It was the message he preached.
2. Verse 9 says that a group of Jews from a prominent, local synagogue stood up against Stephen. It says specifically that they were “disputing” with Him.
3. Apparently, Stephen was proclaiming the gospel, and this crowd started to argue with him about his message.
4. But look at verse 10. It says, “And they were not able to resist the wisdom and the spirit by which he spake.”
5. As Stephen was preaching, one of these synagogue cynics would holler out an objection. Very wisely and powerfully, Stephen would answer it, and continue to preach the gospel.
6. As we share the message of the gospel, we can expect that there are going to be objections and questions, and we need to be able to answer them.
7. Yet, our answers must be clothed in wisdom, and controlled by the Spirit. It is not enough to give the right answer. We must give it in the right way.
8. I have known Christians who love to argue. If there were a church debate team, they would want to be the captain of it.
9. Yet, they use their faith like the sword of a fencer. They jab out answers, trying to score points against their opponents.
10. That is not what Stephen did. Stephen was not trying to win a debate. Stephen was trying to win people. That kind of spirit-guided witness may never win over the haters, but it will win over the hearts of those who genuinely want to hear the truth.
11. As we consider Stephen’s adversaries, we see not only the argument they lost to Stephen, but we see also:
B. The attack they leveled on Stephen 1. John Stott says of Stephen’s enemies in Acts 6, “…thwarted in open debate, Stephen’s opponents started a smear campaign against him, for when arguments fail, mud has often seemed an excellent substitute.”3 2. They started slinging mud at Stephen when they couldn’t overcome the wisdom of his argument.
3. Verse 11 says they wrangled some people into accusing Stephen of blasphemy, a most serious charge in first century Jerusalem – one that ultimately put Jesus on the cross.
4. Here were their claims. They said that Stephen spoke against Moses and against God, against the temple, and against the Law.
5. Verse 14 gives us the specifics of the charge. They said, “For we have heard him say, that this Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy this place, and shall change the customs which Moses delivered us.” 6. I want you to see that there is a grain of truth in that. Jesus had said, “destroy this temple”, and that He would rebuild it (John 2:19). But, He said that in reference to His own body.
7. And yes, much of their religious tradition was replaced by the gospel, but Jesus had not come to destroy the Law; He had come to fulfill it.
8. Still today, whenever you proclaim the gospel of Jesus, you can expect this same kind of misrepresentation and misunderstanding of the message.
9. For instance, as you call people to repentance and faith in Christ, the world will say, “Who are you to judge me? Who are you to tell me my life needs to change?”
10. Opponents of the gospel will say, “What makes you think you are right and everyone else is wrong? How can you say that Jesus is the only way? That is so narrow, so exclusive, so arrogant!”
11. There is a grain of truth in those accusations, but they miss the real truth of the message altogether. They are dodging the real issues.
12. Can you live with that? A more important question is could you die for that? Stephen did.
13. Preaching on this text, John Piper said to his congregation: “Stephen died for this truth I am about to tell you. In fact, he chose to go on speaking this truth when he knew it would cost him his life.”4 14. Stephen’s steadfast preaching challenges us to continue to proclaim the gospel, even when our adversaries malign us and mistreat us for it.
15. When that happens, God will stand with us. He may not spare us from suffering for His gospel, but He will stand with us even as we suffer for Him.
16. I say that, pointing you not only to what’s inspiring about Stephen’s activity, and what’s important about Stephen’s adversaries, but I want you to see thirdly:
III. WHAT’S IMPRESSIVE ABOUT STEPHEN’S APPEARANCE 1. Verse 12 says that Stephen’s adversaries “stirred up” the people and the leaders of the community. Angry over the charge of blasphemy, they snatched Stephen up, and carried him into the courtroom of the Jewish council.
2. After the witnesses spelled out their accusations, everyone in the courtroom turned to look at Stephen.
3. What did they see; a man with furrowed brow, angry at being falsely accused; a man with fear on his face, afraid of what might happen to him?
4. Not at all. Look at verse 15. It says, “And all that sat in the council, looking steadfastly on him, saw his face as it had been the face of an angel.” 5. What was going on there? What was so impressive about Stephen’s appearance? We have to say firstly that:
A. This was something supernatural 1. Take note of the fact that it was Stephen’s enemies who recognized this angelic glow on his face.
2. Even his enemies saw something unusual about his countenance, and recognized it to be something heavenly and holy.
3. That tells us that God did something to Stephen in that council meeting. God put a sort of glow on his face in that particular moment.
4. If you ever find yourself in the crosshairs of this world, I can’t promise you that God will put a heavenly glow on your face.
5. But I do believe that God will give you grace. I do believe there is a supernatural grace given to those who have to suffer for Christ’s sake.
6. When Dietrich Bonhoeffer was imprisoned by the Nazi’s and ultimately executed by them, there were other men imprisoned with him. One of them one was a British intelligence officer named Best.
7. He wrote of Bonhoeffer during that time and said, “He was one of the very few men I have ever met to whom his God was real and ever close to him…”5 8. Some of that closeness to God can be attributed to Bonhoeffer’s devotion, but the sight of it in the eyes of others is a testimony of God’s supernatural grace given in the time of need.
9. We see in Stephen’s glowing face something supernatural. But I think also that when we look at Stephen’s appearance, we see that:
B. This was something symbolic 1. If you know your Bible, Stephen’s glowing face might remind you of another scene from Scripture.
2. In Exodus 34:29, when Moses came down from the mountain after being with God, the Bible says that his face was glowing and shining.
3. In that council meeting in Acts 6, the witnesses for the prosecution had just accused Stephen of blaspheming Moses and the Law.
4. And when they all turned to look at Stephen, what they saw was a glowing face, much like that of Moses, fresh from the mountain.
5. It is as if God wanted them to know that just like Moses had been in His presence, so also had Stephen.
6. One writer says, “In this way God was showing that both Moses’ ministry of the law and Stephen’s interpretation of it had his approval.”6 7. I don’t see any glowing faces this morning, but I wonder; is there anything in your life that points symbolically to the gospel you claim and proclaim?
8. Jesus loved this world He came to save. Is there any love visible in your life?
9. Jesus suffered and sacrificed for the sake of His people. What have you suffered? What have you sacrificed?
10. Were a court assembled today, accusing you of following Jesus and preaching His gospel, where is the cross you’ve borne in following Him? Where is the humility, meekness, and lowliness you’ve put on in the likeness of Him who humbled Himself?
11. What I’m saying is that there ought to be something visible in our lives that points to the Lord we claim to follow and the truthfulness of the message we claim to believe.
12. Stephen’s glowing face did not spare him from death. Neither will any likeness to Christ shield us from suffering in this world.
13. Yet, this world should never struggle to identify who it is that really follows Jesus. Let them see His grace on our lives and His likeness on our face.
1. G. Campbell Morgan, in his book on Acts, does a great job of comparing Stephen to the Lord he died for.
2. Morgan says, “Those familiar with the life-story of Jesus cannot read this story of Stephen without feeling how remarkable [is the]…similarity between the two.”7 3. Stephen was not just a supporting actor in the story of Acts. Stephen was a supporting actor in the story of Jesus.
4. What about you? Is your life being lived out as a testimony to Him whose life alone really matters?
5. If the book of Acts is the story of what Jesus continued to do through His Spirit-powered church, then truthfully, all of us are supporting actors in His great story.
6. We may not all be called upon to play a part like Stephen’s, but we all have a part in the story of Jesus.
7. We may not be the best supporting actors, but would to God we would live up to the faith we claim, and live like the Lord we proclaim as long as we are allowed to be on the stage of this life.
1 Hinds, Julie, “J.K. Simmons lit up Oscars with simple message”, 2/24/15, www.usatoday.com, accessed 2/26/15, http://www.usatoday.com/story/life/movies/2015/02/24/simmons-oscars-call-your-mom/23928939/
2 Morgan, G. Campbell, “The Acts of the Apostles”, (Fleming H. Revell, New York, 1924), p. 177
3 Stott, John R.W., The Message of Acts, (IVP, Downers Grove, IL, 1990), Amazon Kindle edition
4 Piper, John, “Stephen’s Crime: ‘Jesus Will Destroy the Temple”, 3/24/1991, www.desiringgod.org, accessed 2/27/15, http://www.desiringgod.org/sermons/stephens-crime-jesus-will-destroy-the-temple
5 Kelly, Geffrey B., “The Life and Death of a Modern Martyr”, www.christianhistoryinstitute.org, accessed 2/27/15, https://www.christianhistoryinstitute.org/magazine/article/life-and-death-of-a-modern-martyr/
6 Stott, John R.W., The Message of Acts, (IVP, Downers Grove, IL, 1990), Amazon Kindle edition
7 Morgan, G. Campbell, The Acts of the Apostle, (Fleming H. Revell, New York, 1924), p. 180