Sunday, September 20, 2020
Stephen and Supernatural Living
My mom is a godly woman and has had a tremendous influence on my life.
She is the one who shared Jesus with me and led me to Christ.
Even today in her 80’s in very bad health, she walks with the Lord.
One of her best qualities is her compassion. When someone suffers, she suffers with them. In fact, sometimes she identifies with people so much, that her pain can be overwhelming. So much so that sometimes I hesitate to tell her of someone I know who is suffering. Someone who is sick or who has died. She can take it quite hard.
I like to think of her as a woman who is full of compassion. Full of mercy.
But then there was someone else in our extended family. Early in our marriage Annette and I tried to help him work through some drug and alcohol problems. But as is common with addicts, he was a very good liar. He lied often. So often that I would describe him as a man “full of lies.”
Think of those expressions: My mom “full of compassion.” Our relative “full of lies.”
We use that expression often, perhaps more than we realize. FULL OF….
Full of joy. A peaceful smile. Warm words.
Full of himself. Arrogant. Talks about himself too much. Looks down on others.
Full of rage. Boiling mad. Red faced. Screaming profanities.
We know what these look like.
The Scriptures talk about other kinds of “FULL.” Especially being “full of the Holy Spirit.” It’s a curious expression. A bit mysterious, perhaps. But it’s clearer than we may think.
We are in Week 8 of a sermon series going through a book called “Acts.”
Last week in chapter 5, we read of a confrontation by religious leaders against Jesus’ apostles.
Today we are going to read another dramatic story. This story ends much differently. It ends in murder.
Stephen, the main character in the story, is a man full of the Holy Spirit. Stephen models to us the supernatural life that God calls us to.
Acts 6 (ESV)
1 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.
2 And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables.
3 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.
4 But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”
5 And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch.
6 These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.
7 And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.
The one thing here I want to point out is the quality of men the church was asked to appoint. They needed to be men of good repute. Men with a good reputation. Well respected. Men with godly character like love, joy, hope, patience, and kindness.
And they needed to be full of the Spirit and full of wisdom.
What a requirement. The apostles didn’t list men who were administrative or who had good leadership ability, although they might have had that. The apostles wanted godly men. Men full of the Holy Spirit and full of God’s wisdom.
What being “filled with the Spirit” actually is not clearly defined here. But it’s more straightforward than we may realize.
Our own Dave Bovenmyer wrote a paper on the topic of Sanctification, and I like his definition:
“Being filled with the Spirit is allowing the Spirit to be the driver. It is yielding to his will, his commands, his desires, his agenda, his timing, his wisdom. It is allowing him to have control of us. It is impossible to be filled with yourself and with the Spirit at the same time.”
And now in vs. 8, Stephen was even more “FULL.”
8 And Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people.
9 Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), and of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of those from Cilicia and Asia, rose up and disputed with Stephen.
10 But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking.
Now, in addition to his duties in helping in the church to distribute food, Stephen is being used by God to perform miracles among the people. And he is preaching the gospel. And his work finds opposition, just like Jesus found opposition and like the apostles, as we read last week. The opponents are members of a local synagogue. They begin arguing with Stephen, probably about who Jesus was, what he did, and what the Scriptures said about him.
Stephen was an ordinary man like us. But God was filling him in extraordinary ways.
Stephen was full of Holy Spirit. And full of wisdom, faith, grace, and power.
The story continues.
11 Then they secretly instigated men who said, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.”
12 And they stirred up the people and the elders and the scribes, and they came upon him and seized him and brought him before the council,
13 and they set up false witnesses who said, “This man never ceases to speak words against this holy place and the law,
14 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.”
This, too, is what happened to Jesus.
They couldn’t win the argument against Stephen and the wisdom he had from the Holy Spirit. So they stirred up lies and opposition. They got the Jewish council, the Sanhedrin, involved. And we are going to find some remarkable similarities between Stephen’s story here and what happened to the Lord Jesus before and during his crucifixion.
This hints to us that the suffering of Christ may happen to any of Jesus’ followers.
Verse 15 is astonishing.
15 And gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel.
What a comment! All these angry men who hated Jesus and hated the apostles and now hated Stephen noticed something heavenly about Stephen. “His face was like that of an angel.” There was something holy, something majestic and even glorious about Stephen’s appearance.
Now in chapter 7, the trial continues.
Acts 7:1–3 (ESV)
1 And the high priest said, “Are these things so?”
And Stephen said: “Brothers and fathers, hear me. The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran,
3 and said to him, ‘Go out from your land and from your kindred and go into the land that I will show you.’
In this courtroom scene, Stephen launches into a long speech. It’s a fascinating speech. It’s fascinating, FIRST, because Stephen never really answers the high priests’ question of, “Is this charge of blasphemy true?”
SECOND, he launches into an overview of biblical history. It’s sort of like what we would call today an Old Testament Walk Thru.
Why he does this is a fascinating question to speculate on.
Because the speech is so long, I don’t have enough time this morning to read it. But let me give some highlights.
He starts with Abraham in Genesis 12. Abraham is the father of not only Israel’s faith but ours as well.
He speaks of Abraham’s grandson, Joseph, who ruled over Egypt.
Then he speaks extensively of Moses, who was the recipient of the Covenant God made with Israel. Today we call that covenant the Old Covenant, or the Old Testament.
Jesus Christ is the New Covenant, the New Testament.
Then Stephen speaks briefly of David and Solomon.
So in this long historical review Stephen doesn’t really answer the accusations of blasphemy. There are some possible reasons that I won’t get into.
What is noteworthy, though, is that Stephen doesn’t seem to be concerned with defending himself. His goal is to proclaim Jesus Christ just like the apostles did and to warn all who are rejecting Jesus.
Then after all this historical review of God and his dealings with the people of Israel, Stephen abruptly changes course.
He sternly rebukes the leaders in the courtroom.
51 “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you.
52 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,
53 you who received the law as delivered by angels and did not keep it.”
Because of the abrupt change of topic, you might think that we just skipped some gradual transition into this section, but there is none. Stephen holds nothing back. Now remember, Stephen is a man full of the Holy Spirit. Full of faith. Full of wisdom. Full of power and grace. This is not some out-of-control rage where he simply blows up. Led by the Holy Spirit, Stephen rebukes the leaders with a stern warning.
Well, if you guessed this didn’t go over well with the leaders, you are correct.
AS AN ASIDE: We might think Stephen is overly harsh here. But we have to recognize that many of these leaders, including the high priest, were the ones who voted to kill Jesus. They had been resisting everything related to their Messiah for years now. 2-3 years of Jesus’ ministry. And now 5-7 years of the apostles’ ministry. Not only were they resisting Christ, they were misleading the people. In the gospels and in Acts, the harshest rebukes are generally reserved for those who have consistently resisted and fought against the gospel, and often for a long time.
So we all need to find a place of boldness. Yet I suspect it will seldom look quite as blunt as Stephen’s.
So Stephen rebukes them. How did they respond?
54 Now when they heard these things they were enraged, and they ground their teeth at him.
55 But he, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.
56 And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
Stephen isn’t panicking. Instead, he is supernaturally empowered, filled with the Holy Spirit.
And he has a heavenly vision where he sees Jesus Christ standing at the right hand of God, at the position of great authority and power.
Did this heavenly vision give the leaders pause to consider they might be fighting against God? No.
57 But they cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears and rushed together at him.
58 Then they cast him out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul.
59 And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.”
60 And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep.
Their rage overcame them, and just like they murdered the Lord Jesus, they murdered Stephen.
Stephen’s last words are fascinating.
“Lord, receive my spirit.”
“Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”
Do they remind you of someone else? Stephen’s words are remarkably like Jesus’ own words on the cross just a few years earlier. So here is a godly man. Full of wisdom, full of faith, and full of the Holy Spirit. He spoke the truth that these leaders needed to hear. And it cost him his life.
And a man named Saul is introduced to us in vs. 58. Later Saul is dramatically converted to faith in this Jesus whom he was persecuting. And he changes his name to Paul, and later becomes Paul the Apostle, the most influential Christian in the past 2000 years. We will hear more of him in two weeks.
So why do we have this passage? And what can we take from it?
Let me give us some things to consider.
- In the flow of early church history and the book of Acts, this story of chapters 6 and 7 leads to a turning point with the church.
Next week we will see how God took this violent, unjust murder and used it for good in the furtherance of the gospel to the world.
- Stephen (not an apostle) preached the gospel.
This hints that evangelism is not just a job for apostles. It is for everyone. This will be seen next week in Chapter 8.
- Stephen’s trial and murder is remarkably similar to Jesus’.
This hints to us that what Jesus underwent we, his followers, may undergo.
Years after Stephen’s murder, the Apostle Paul wrote:
2 Timothy 3:12 ESV Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted,
The mission God has called us to can be unpopular and dangerous.
The 4th observation here is what I want to emphasize this morning.
- Stephen’s godly character and his walk with God is crucial here.
Stephen marks out for us not only WHAT TO DO but HOW TO DO IT.
On the outside looking in, the Christian life may seem to simply be a list of tasks. Of DO’s and DON’Ts.
But it is much richer than that. When God saves us, everything changes: Our purpose in life. Our mission. Our hearts.
We are appointed ambassadors for Christ. Speaking about Christ and making disciples wherever we go.
This is a supernatural calling. And this calling cannot be fulfilled by mere human effort. It is fulfilled by supernatural power. We see this as a theme throughout Acts as the apostles and other disciples lived out their calling. God’s presence and power was evident in their lives.
Paul said later in 2 Corinthians 3 that we are not adequate for such a ministry. We are not sufficient. But our adequacy…our sufficiency… our capability…comes from God.
Stephen was like this.
He was a man with a good reputation. Solid godly character. Well respected because of it. His character gave him a platform from which to serve and speak. He earned respect. And he represented Jesus Christ well.
So I want to finish up with this application: Let us seek godly, Spirit-filled lifestyles like Stephen had.
For years I have prayed many, many times, “Lord, make me like Stephen.”
A man with good reputation due to his godly character. A man full of the Spirit. Full of faith. Full of grace. Full of power. Full of wisdom.
This is not about special gifting or unusual experiences. This is about walking in intimacy with God. Leaning on him. Emptying ourselves of self. Looking to him in faith. Abiding in him like a branch attaches to a vine.
A question I have asked and many of you have asked is, “How do I be filled with the Spirit?”
What is the formula? What are the three easy steps?
Well, God did not list it out that way.
I would like to take some of the mystery out of it this morning.
We are often (always?) filled with something, some of those things being worthless.
Filled with a desire to be accepted by others. Filled with self and satisfying our own wants. Filled with anxiety over school or finances or the state of our nation. Filled with anger at someone who hurt us. Filled with a thirst for entertainment to relieve our boredom.
We need to empty ourselves of any sin, and then replace that with a filling of truth that anchors our lives.
Colossians 3:16 ESV
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly,
teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom,
singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs,
with thankfulness in your hearts to God.
In Ephesians 5 we are commanded to be filled with the Spirit. And that verse is quite similar to this one.
And it seems that letting the “word of Christ dwell in us richly” is synonymous with being filled with the Spirit.
When we read this verse in its context of chapter 3, the emphasis is on the community of faith. We are to do this together.
Sure, there is individual application, but the emphasis is on the church doing this together.
So let’s break this down.
- Let God’s Word dwell in you richly.
Richly. In great quantities. There are no shortcuts. We have to become people who love to hear what God says.
You might not like to read. You might not understand everything you read or hear. That’s fine. But we have to stay at it. When we are filled with God’s truth, we begin to change. We are transformed, says Romans 12:2.
A neighbor I talked to on Thursday said she has been consumed with all the stresses in our society today. Political fighting, COVID fighting, other social issues. She has been at a breaking point, so the first thing she decided to do was to turn off social media. And combined with that, she is recognizing the need to have her mind filled with God’s word. She asked for advice.
Instead of being filled with the news, she wants to be filled with the truth about God.
That seems like a simple yet very solid plan to me.
How can we dwell richly on Christ?
Pay attention on Sunday mornings and in Community Group. Read the Word of Christ in the morning. Read with a friend or spouse. Have devotionals at the dinner table with family or roommates, even if it’s brief.
And at the same time, we have to dwell LESS on other competing influences.
- And we are to do this by teaching and admonishing one another in the truth with wisdom.
This is active discipling of one another. We can’t be passive with one another. Too often we’re simply not engaged enough with one another. We might be good friends, but we’re not often pointing one another to truth about God, about our identity in Christ, about our purpose in life, and more.
- And we are to dwell richly in Christ by singing with thankfulness.
Again, the emphasis of this verse is to do this in community. Many of us are still watching our service at home, and we’re not able to sing together. That is a disadvantage, but God will give us grace while we need it.
But singing together with thankfulness is crucial for our faith. Christ’s word can dwell richly in us by singing with thankfulness.
And of course, we can sing at home and in the car. That’s good, too.
And if you can’t carry a tune, Psalm 100 says to “make a joyful noise.” So be joyfully noisy when you sing!
And we sing with thankfulness. We have gratitude as we remember Jesus and what he has done. We give heart-felt thanks to God for all sorts of things instead of grumbling and complaining. Complaining about politics. Grumbling about the boss at work or our professor in a class. Whining about COVID and all the hassles it creates.
So after the service while we’re visiting outside, instead of complaining about something, we should start singing to one another! J
Let me wrap up with this.
Our calling from God is to live a life empowered by God himself.
The early disciples had a rich Christianity. They loved God. They cared for one another. They were on mission to the world.
But this was no mere human endeavor. It was a God-appointed, Christ-directed, Spirit-empowered life.
A life of godly character leading to a good reputation. A life full of the Holy Spirit. A life full of faith, wisdom, grace, and power like Stephen.
May God help us to pursue that kind of living until the end of our days on earth.