God’s Power for God’s Purpose
Stephen, the Man God Crowned
Dr. Jim Denison
I recently taught a course titled, “The Faith of the Presidents.” Week three was devoted to Abraham Lincoln, the consensus choice of historians as the greatest president in our nation’s history. Many believe that his genius and courage were more responsible for the preservation of the Union than any other single factor.
Given the veneration extended to Mr. Lincoln across the generations since his tragic assassination, I was surprised to learn of the vilification he faced during his lifetime—from critics in the North. I expected to find Southern opposition to his leadership and character, but was not prepared for the degree of persecution he experienced from those on his side of the conflict.
For instance, the Baltimore Sun editorialized on his actions between his election and his inauguration: “Had we any respect for Mr. Lincoln, official or personal, as a man, or as President-elect of the United States, his career and speeches on his way to the seat of government would have cruelly impaired it. We do not believe the Presidency can ever be more degraded by any of his successors, than it has been by him, even before his inauguration.”
In 1864, the New York Herald called the president “joke incarnated, his election a very sorry joke, and the idea that such a man as he should be the President of such a country as this, a very ridiculous joke.” An editorial in a Northern newspaper for New Year of 1864 opined, “The people of the North owe Mr. Lincoln nothing but eternal hatred and scorn. There are 500,000 new made graves; there are 500,000 orphans; there are 200,000 widows; there is a bottomless sea of blood; there is the Constitution broken; there are liberty and law—liberty in chains and in a dungeon; thieves in the Treasury, provost marshals in the seats of justice, butchers in the pulpit—and these are the things which we owe Mr. Lincoln.” And Henry Ward Beecher, one of the most respected and popular preachers of the day, characterized the president thus: “Not a spark of genius has he; not an element of leadership. Not one particle of heroic enthusiasm.”
Being right is no guarantee that we’ll being popular. Quite often the reverse is true. When we walk through the biblical Hall of Faith we find this summary at the end of the tour: “Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated—the world was not worthy of them” (Hebrews 11:36-38).
By now you may have seen Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. If so, you have witnessed the crucifixion portrayed more accurately than by any other film in history. Remember that the crowd shouted “Crucify him!” And know that the followers of this Christ will be persecuted as well.
With Stephen we learn how to stand up to opposition, how to defend our Lord no matter what happens to us. Where might you face persecution for your faith? What real or possible issues might you address? The stones thrown against you for your faith may be geological, social, or financial. But they will all be real. Here’s how to respond.
Face opposition for the right reasons (Acts 6:8-15)
Stephen, immediately upon his selection to “the Seven” (Acts 6:5; cf. 21:8), vindicated the choice of the people. He was “full of God’s grace and power” (v. 8a); “full” means “to be controlled by” or “submitted to.” He submitted himself to the gifts and power of the Holy Spirit, and became a conduit for his work. You and I are to do the same (Ephesians 5:18).
The result was “great wonders and miraculous signs among the people” (v. 8b). “Wonders” point perhaps to miraculous abilities, “signs” to miraculous actions. Perhaps the people witnessed wondrous power or revelatory conviction and wisdom in his preaching, teaching, and leadership; and “signs” through a healing ministry performed through him. His work was done “among the people,” providing public proof of the reality of the Spirit’s work in his life.
Such a widespread ministry would quickly lead to reaction by the Jerusalem authorities. This was precisely what they had tried to prevent with earlier arrests and warnings (Acts 4:18-21; 5:40). In their minds, the spiritual malignancy of the Christian faith was spreading and must be contained at all costs: “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” (v. 9a).
The “Synagogue of the Freedmen” was a popular title for Jews who had earlier been freed from slavery. They had come to Jerusalem from a wide geographic spectrum: Cyrene in northern Africa; Alexandria in Egypt, second only to Rome in power and first in academic achievement and learning; the province of Cilicia in southeast Asia Minor (Turkey today), where Tarsus was located; and the province of Asia on the western coast of modern-day Turkey. Since this synagogue included those from Saul of Tarsus’s hometown, it is possible that he met with them. And that he participated as “these men began to argue with Stephen” (v. 9b). Such disputation was a principal way those in Jewish synagogues dealt with theological issues; the losing party was expected to cease its heretical actions.
In this case, the synagogue leaders “could not stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by which he spoke” (v. 10). So long as we work in the wisdom and Spirit of the Lord, our words will always be powerful and victorious. He will give us what to say when our faith is opposed—either through prior preparation or on-the-spot leadership (cf. Mark 13:11, “Whenever you are arrested and brought to trial, do not worry beforehand about what to say. Just say whatever is given you at the time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit”).
The defeated disputants, rather than admit their error and loss, reacted with even greater malice and manipulation. They persuaded false witnesses to accuse Stephen of public blasphemy, a charge punished by execution (Acts 6:11-14). No doubt Stephen had in fact quoted Jesus’ promise that he would be raised from the dead (v. 14; cf. Matthew 26:61, John 2:19-22). Here, as in the trial of Jesus, opponents of the gospel twisted and misquoted his words and promise.
Now the Sanhedrin, gathered to prosecute the trial, had their charge. They “looked intently” at the defendant (Acts 6:15a); the words mean “to stare with intense purpose.” They were examining him closely. And what they saw was miraculous: “his face was like the face of an angel” (v. 15b). Luke likely means that the presence of the Spirit was so obvious and radiant that Stephen’s face shone with angelic glory. When Moses came down the mountain from a direct encounter with the Lord of the universe, others saw the same on his countenance (Exodus 34:29-35). When last did others see the glory of the Lord on your face and in your spirit?
Stephen would soon face persecution unto death, but for the right reasons. He was not convicted of theological heresy; in fact, his innocence was obvious to all (Acts 6:10). The Sanhedrin knew their witnesses were false (vs. 11, 13). The truth of his convictions was clear, and his face witnessed to the presence of the Spirit in his life. You and I are called to be equally biblical and Spirit-filled, no matter who opposes our Lord.
Peter’s caution is still relevant: “It is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil” (1 Peter 3:17). Make sure you are right with God, then allow others to respond as they will. Are you facing opposition for your faith? Why or why not?
Defend your faith biblically (Acts 7:1-53)
Now we come to one of the most remarkable discourses to be found anywhere in Scripture. Here is a man without any rabbinic training that we know of, standing on trial before the Supreme Court of his nation, facing a sentence of execution with no appeal if they choose to order it. How would you respond? Stephen answers by telling the entire story of Israel’s history and faith, calling to the stand each of her great figures of leadership and commitment. Each provides further proof that the Jewish authorities are wrong and his Lord and faith are right.
We will not attempt to study the speech itself in detail, as its narrative should be familiar to any who know the basic history of Old Testament Israel. Rather, we will focus briefly on those places within the story which Stephen used to make his case against the Sanhedrin and for his Savior.
The high priest, a kind of Chief Justice presiding over the trial, gave Stephen opportunity to make his defense with his legal and formal question, “Are these charges true?” (Acts 7:1). His response could not have been what they expected. Speaking as a prosecutor rather than a defendant, he gave no attention to the false charges brought against him. Rather, he brought true charges against those accusing him and opposing his Lord. The essence of his argument: the Jewish people through their history refused the word of the Lord, and now stand guilty of rejecting the will and Messiah of God. It is they, not Stephen, who are in need of repentance.
His first proof: the founders of the nation of Israel rejected Joseph, the heir of Abraham and savior of the nation (vs. 9-10; cf. Genesis 37:12-36). Note that Stephen called them “patriarchs” (v. 9), identifying them clearly as the founders of the people. He diagnosed their spiritual sin as jealousy, a pattern which would continue through their history.
His second proof: the Jewish people rejected Moses when he first attempted to save them from Egyptian oppression (vs. 23-29, 35). As a result, the future savior of their nation was forced to flee to Midian as a foreigner.
His third proof: “our fathers” again rejected Moses’ leadership, wishing to return to Egypt and idolatry (vs. 39-42). Moses had promised that “God will send you a prophet like me from your own people” (v. 37; Deuteronomy 18:15), but they rejected his promise and faith. Their later exile to Babylon only continued the pattern of sinful pride and its consequences (vs. 42-43).
His last proof: the people confined God to the temple they built for him, when he is the Lord of the universe (vs. 48-50). Again they limited God’s sovereignty and rule over their lives and future.
Stephen’s conclusion: “You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit!” (v. 51). The fathers of the nation resisted Joseph and Moses, the two men more responsible for the nation’s salvation from slavery than any others in their history. Now the One who would save them from spiritual slavery has come, in answer to the prophets’ promise (v. 52). And they killed him, as they did the prophets who came before him. The people received the law through angelic revelation, but have not obeyed it (v. 53).
The defendant on trial is no longer Stephen, but the Sanhedrin. Their rejection of the Messiah is proof of their rebellion against God. Stephen’s defense of his faith is proof of his obedience to the Lord. One man has justified the Christian movement and indicted every member of the Jewish leadership who opposes his faith.
When you and I are put on trial for our faith, we must respond with the word of God as did Stephen. Jesus answered Satan’s temptations by quoting Scripture alone (Matthew 4:1-10). Peter told us to be ready to do the same: “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Peter 3:15).
The Scriptures are the sword most effective in spiritual battle: “the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).
For this battle you will need “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Ephesians 6:17). In Pilgrim’s Progress, Christian came into conflict with Apollyon, “a hideous monster to behold: he was covered with scales like a fish, of which he was very proud; he had wings like a dragon, feet like a bear, and a mouth like a lion; and out of his belly came fire and smoke. He came up and stared at Christian with a most horrible look.”
In mortal conflict, Christian was beaten back and near death when finally “[his] hand touched his sword, which gave him fresh spirit. He gripped the sword with all his might and said, ‘Rejoice not against me, O my enemy; when I fall, I shall rise again,’ giving Apollyon a deadly thrust which caused him to fall back as if mortally wounded. Summoning all his strength, Christian rose to his feet and advanced toward him, crying, ‘In all these things we are more than conquerors through him that loved us.’ This was too much for Apollyon; he spread his wings and flew away.”
With the word of God we are to defend our faith and our Lord. And this sword will always give the victory.
Trust God with the results (Acts 7:54—8:1)
What happened to Stephen illustrates the results we will encounter when we take a stand for our Lord and our faith.
Expect some to reject you
You cannot control how persecutors will respond to your faith. So long as you speak the words of God, their rejection is not about you. Some will come to conviction and faith; others will not—the Sanhedrin “were furious and gnashed their teeth at him” (v. 54). Actually, they were angry with the Lord whom Stephen proclaimed.
Know that God will honor your faithfulness
In the midst of their anger, Stephen was given a vision of the “glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God” (v. 55). He had chosen to be “full of the Holy Spirit,” yielded to his will and power. And now the Spirit showed him the heavenly reward which would soon be his.
Risk your life for your Lord
Stephen announced to the Sanhedrin his vision (v. 56). Convicting him of heresy, they “covered their ears”; “yelling at the top of their voices,” the entire Sanhedrin “all rushed at him” (v. 57). Without waiting for Roman permission, they “dragged him out of the city and began to stone him” (v. 58a). This was the preferred Jewish method of capital punishment.
One participant in particular is mentioned: “Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul” (v. 58b). Here we have the first reference to the man who would occupy the second half of Luke’s narrative. The “witnesses” mentioned were those who brought the false charges which led to Stephen’s execution. Their presence was required as they would be responsible for casting the first stone. Saul’s willingness to guard their coats was evidence of his agreement with their actions and Stephen’s execution.
You may pay for your faith with your life. But remember the words of Justin the Martyr when speaking to his accusers: “You can kill us, but you cannot harm us.”
Pardon those who persecute you
You cannot choose how people will respond to your witness, but you can choose how you will respond to them. In the midst of his execution, Stephen asked the Lord Jesus to “receive his spirit” (v. 59), clear indication that the first Christians saw Jesus as their risen and heavenly Lord. Then he spoke his last: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (v. 60a)—an obvious decision to follow his Master’s example (cf. Luke 23:34).
Biblical forgiveness does not mean that we pretend we have not been injured; such would have been impossible for Stephen. It is not excusing wrong behavior—he properly called their actions “sin.” It is to pardon, as when a governor pardons a criminal—he does not say there was no crime, but chooses not to punish as he might. Stephen here asked the Lord not to punish his executioners, that they might know the forgiveness of God. We are to do the same.
Know that your legacy will outlive you
And so Stephen “fell asleep,” a common New Testament metaphor for physical death. He was in that moment with the Lord in heaven (cf. Luke 23:43; Philippians 1:23). At the same time, his body would “sleep” in the grave until its final resurrection (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:42-44). He was in his reward, a mansion prepared in heaven for him (John 14:1-2).
Meanwhile, others beyond his knowledge would be affected by his life and death. Specifically, “Saul was there, giving approval to his death” (Acts 8:1). Later Paul would recount the event, “I stood there giving my approval and guarding the clothes of those who were killing him” (Acts 22:20). “Giving my approval” may or may not indicate a formal vote with the Sanhedrin.
Later the apostle admitted, “On the authority of the chief priests I put many of the saints in prison, and when they were put to death, I cast my vote against them” (Acts 26:10). Many believe that this statement indicates that Paul was a member of the Sanhedrin at the time; others suggest that he was a member of a fact-finding commission and voted as part of his responsibility therein.
Either way, he was a most significant and influential part of the Jewish opposition to Christianity. And of course, he later became the faith’s most important and global advocate. We wonder—without a martyred Stephen, would there have been an apostle Paul?
When you stand firmly for your Lord and faith, you can know that your legacy will outlive you. People you do not know on this side of eternity will join you there because of your unseen influence on their lives. Great people plant trees they’ll never sit under. We’re sitting under Stephen’s this week.
If you and I are willing to follow Jesus, we can expect the enemy to attack us, and the world to misunderstand us. I am writing these comments after watching a television show which centered its plot on Christian “homophobic” belief that homosexuality is a wrong lifestyle. The program expressly made all who live by biblical truth to be simpletons and dangerous—further proof that we are living in a largely post-Christian world. If the world persecuted our Lord, we should expect the same (cf. Mark 13:13).
Every time our faith is challenged, we are presented with an option. We can choose to capitulate to those who reject our faith, and so dishonor our Father. Or we can see this challenge as an opportunity to make the gospel clear through our courage and witness. Any temporary loss we experience as a result is only the price of eternal reward (cf. Romans 8:18).
The next time you have a chance to stand for Jesus but are afraid of opposition, ask yourself: what’s the worst thing that could happen here? What is the best? You’ll know what to do.
Mother Teresa was in New York City for the opening of a new orphanage sponsored by her organization. A reporter shouted the question, “How will you know if you are successful?” Mother Teresa turned to the camera’s glare, smiled, and said, “I don’t believe our Lord ever spoke of success. He spoke only of faithfulness in love.”
Will you be faithful this week?