In Acts 6:15-7:16, we read part of the story of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. He was arrested and brought before the Jewish council. The council levied four charges against Stephen: blaspheming God, Moses, the law and the temple. If true, all would have been worthy of death. These charges were false. Some people he was debating could not defeat him, so they made false accusations against him. This trial also violated the commandment to not bear false witness against your neighbour. His trial established a pattern of martyrdom that would define church growth for centuries to come.
When Stephen was brought before the Jewish authorities, did he know that he would be killed? We don’t know. What we do know is that he preached with an intuitive power, as if he knew that he might not have another chance. In his response, Stephen surveyed all of the Old Testament to show that what the Jews called blasphemy was actually a description of the changes God was bringing to Israel through the Just One, the long-awaited Messiah whom they had just crucified.
Stephen was a person whose witness was radiant with grace and graciousness. A description of what Stephen’s face might have looked like is found in Exodus 34, when Moses came down from Mount Sinai. Those who are filled with the Holy Spirit usually reflect something of that reality in their faces. Stephen was full of faith in Christ and the Resurrection. He believed that all things were possible through faith in Christ. That belief led to miraculous things happening to people who heard him preach and teach. He became a magnet to people in need and a target of opposition.
What did the Jews see as they looked upon the face of Stephen? They saw his wisdom coming out through the look on his face, and that look resembled the look of an angel. They saw the Holy Spirit in his words and actions. There’s something about being in the anointing of Jesus that causes a countenance to radiate with His supernatural glory. When we encounter Jesus, His glory gets on us. The more closely we abide in Jesus, the brighter our light becomes.
Stephen saw a chance to say what the Israelite leaders needed to hear. His sermon established three points:
- Christ and His kingdom are the main point of God’s progressive plan, not the temple.
- God has always blessed Israel throughout its history, regardless of whether it had a temple.
- Israel has a long history of attempting to frustrate God’s plan and has always consisted of two groups: the righteous and the rebellious.
Why did Stephen take the approach of summarizing the history of the Jewish people? We don’t know. Perhaps he wanted to explain the deeper meaning, purpose, fulfillment, and culmination of the Messiah. He did know that the authorities were angry. The only way he could sway them and calm them down was to remind them about what they had in common. He also wanted to establish his credentials as a faithful Hebrew scholar. He also wanted to show God’s faithfulness through history, leading to the death of Jesus. Stephen was trying to tell the story of the freedom and deliverance God offers. He was trying to tell the story of how God overcame every obstacle that his people faced and how God will overcome every obstacle that His people continue to face today.
Stephen knew that he was being condemned without regard to evidence to justice, just as Jesus and the disciples were. His heart might have swelled at the thought of being identified with them in suffering. The love for the truth he was defending and the love for Christ were kindled afresh and inspired him.
God’s judgment on His chosen people was strict because He was guiding and disciplining them, preparing them for His ultimate blessing. Christians are protected from God’s wrath through the cross, but no one is exempt from God’s correction.
Stephen made the point that God does not want us to start out on His path and then stagnate. Obedience involves commitment and follow-through. How many times do we settle for something less than God’s perfect plan for our lives? How often do we set out in obedience only to stop at the halfway mark? When we start talking about God, do we stumble and hesitate, or do we take a bold, fearless stand against the foolishness of unbelief?
Hardships and difficulties, even tragedies, do not mean that God is absent. The Lord was with Joseph in the midst of his trials, shaping him into the man Egypt and his own people needed. God’s presence is never passive. The silence of God should never be attributed to the absence of God.
How can we defend our faith? Stephen gives us a good example. We can start by finding common ground with our opponents. This can calm their anger and create a situation in which reason and cooler heads can prevail. In spite of hostility, we must always do our best to remain respectful. Some people will respond favourably to such efforts, and civil and ongoing conversation may be the result. We must never abandon our efforts with those we are trying to reach for Christ because people are watching us.
- Jeremiah, David: The Jeremiah Study Bible: New Kings James Version (Brentwood, TN: Worthy Publishing; 2013; pp. 1497-1498)
- Ogilvie, L.J. & Ogilvie, L.J.: The Preacher’s Commentary Series, Vol. 28: Acts (Nashville, TN: Nelson Bibles; 2005)
- Stanley, C.F.: The Charles F. Stanley Life Principles Bible: New King James Version (Nashville, TN: Nelson Bibles; 2005)
- MacArthur, J.F. Jr.: The MacArthur Study Bible: New American Standard Bible (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers; 2006)
- Barnes’ Notes on the New Testament. Part of Wordsearch 12 Bible software package.
- Vince Amlin, “Previously On….” Retrieved from firstname.lastname@example.org
- Michael Yousef, Ph.D., “Complete Obedience.” Retrieved from email@example.com
- T.M. Moore, “The Face of Angel.” Retrieved from www.ailbe.org
- T.M. Moore, “Common Ground.” Retrieved from www.ailbe.org
- “Supernatural Under Fire.” Retrieved from Christianity.firstname.lastname@example.org
- Bobby Schuller, “Glowing for God.” Retrieved from email@example.com
- Bobby Schuller, “Giving Voice to God’s Heart.” Retrieved from firstname.lastname@example.org
- Swindoll, Charles R.: Swindoll’s Living Insights New Testament Commentary: Acts (Carol Stream, Il: Tyndale House Publishers; 2016; pp. 126-130)