He was full. Not the kind of full that one feels after potluck. I've seen those plates. Not the kind of full that one suffers with after eating at the Golden Corral's buffet, just so that they can be sure to get their money's worth. You know, I fuigure that if you go back three times you're actually making money. Stephen was full of something that we should all desire. Turn to the book of Acts, chapter 6. Last week we started a new series on the book of Acts called "Fanning the Flame." You may remember it was not too long ago that we had a another series on Acts in different chapters, you remember, when we had a dove sitting up here. By the way, I need to turn the flame on here. Pastor Gettys called me and said, "I found where we can get those because we were looking for one. He called me from General Conference where they had some at a booth. He said, "I founf them and they told us where we can get them. You get it at Spencer Gifts!" Well, I walked into Spencer Gifts. That's the only thing a Christian can buy in there. I came out worried that some of you may have seen me go in.
Acts 6:3. Remember Pastor Carlosn last week said, they had chosen deacons. Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are full of the Spirit and full of wisdom." And according to verse 5, Stephen is described as also being full of Faith. Now look at verse 8. Now Stephen, a man full of God's grace and power, did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people. He was not only full of the Spirit, wisdom and faith, he is also full of God's grace and full of God's power. He is able to do what only the apostles could do before. Under Stephen's influence the church is growing and prospering and spreading.
I've noticed something, that when a church is growing, and prospering, and spreading, it makes somebody mad, called the enemy. He doesn't like that. I can watch a church and I can say, "Uh, oh! The Enemy is on his way, because the church is prospering and growing and spreading." And it never fails. The enemy gets a little bit upset at us. He doesn't want this to happen.
Look at verse 9. Opposition arose, you can always tell when things are going well because opposition will arise. You know you're on the right track. 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. These men began to argue with Stephen, but they could not stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by whom he spoke.
They couldn't win. At least not by normal channels. If there comes a time in your debate that you must be seen as right, no matter what, watch out. You have reached a point where truth no longer matters, only your reputation and power and control. At this point, you become willing to do sneaky things in order to win. It becomes justifiable because you feel that your cause is right. The ends justify the means. This is what happened to those who opposed Jesus. This is what happened to those who opposed Stephen. This is what still happens today. Look at verse 11 through 14. Then they secretly persuaded some men to say, "We have heard Stephen speak words of blasphemy against Moses and against God." So they stirred up the people and the elders and the teachers of the law. They seized Stephen and brought him before the Sanhedrin. They produced false witnesses, who testified, "This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place and against the law. For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us."
Do you get the gist of the accusations? Stephen is telling people that there is a different way of doing things. We don't like 'different!' Today, some Christians are of a similar mind set. Life is a game. It has a set of rules and a method of play. The thought is, if I play by the rules, then I might win. There is little assurance of this but maybe a wee bit of hope. It is simple. It is easy to grasp the concept. If they see someone else playing the game changing maybe one of the rules is understanding it differently or the method of play is not quite followed just right, it meets with cries of, "That's wrong! What are you doing? Who do you think you are? That does not make sense!" For it seems to complicate the game and we become defensive about the way we have always done it. There is a security blanket in things remaining the same. When someone suggest that it's time to put away the blanket, we cry, we kick and scream, we hold on for dear life. For to support that there is a different way takes us from our comfort zone. "It's not fair!"
This is what happened when Jesus came. He showed a different way. He tried to take people to a greater level of maturity. He tried to show them that the rules were not enough. He told parables about how people could win the same prize even though they had not even played the game. "That's not fair!" were the cries. So, rather than drop the security blanket of the way we have always done it, we killed Him!
The good news is: life is not a game to begin with. It is reality. It is a reality called Grace. Grace, by its very definition is, "NOT FAIR!" Praise the Lord! If God treated us as we deserved, ouch! Grace is not fair! What seems to strip away our security blanket of following a certain set of behaviors in order to possible win, actually wraps a security blanket of assurance around those who accept it. One can tell who understands this by how unfairly they treat others. Yes, you heard right. Christians should be experts at treating others unfairly. This is called grace. None of us deserve anything. No, we should not treat others as they deserve but as we wish to be treated.
Stephan was accused of blasphemy against Moses, presumably because he challenged the permanence of the Mosaic Law. And of blasphemy against God, presumably because he challenged the permanence of the Temple. The Jews saw in these two accusations a threat to their whole religious system. The accusations were very clever and were calculated to arouse the fiercest passions among the Jewish people. Much like what happened to Jesus.
It was Calvary all over again. The nation, having officially rejected the Son of God, was now going to officially reject the Spirit of God with the same trumped-up charges, the same use of false witnesses, the same use of the mob, the same lawless murder of the victim. With the death of Stephen, the nation finally crossed the line that led to the destruction of the Temple and the dissolution of the Jewish nation.
So, how did Stephen react to these false accusations? Look at verse 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.
You know, when I get falsely accused, I get mad. What can I do about that? I think I need to be a little bit more like Stephen. I want to have the face of an angel. Stephen is not afraid. He is not hateful. He is at peace. He full well understands that the charges that are being made could lead to his death. But he has a peace that passes understanding because He knows that God is in charge of His new church. Do you have peace about your church? Do you leave God in charge? If so, you can have peace that passes understanding. When the High Priest asked Stephen if the charges were true, he began an amazing discourse on the history of God's church. It seemed that the promise of Jesus in Luke 21:14,15 was being fulfilled in Stephen.
Turn to Luke 21:12. Jesus is talking about the way things are going to be in the last days. Are we in the last days? Be prepared for this. But before all this, they will lay hands on you and persecute you. They will deliver you to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors, and all on account of my name. This will result in your being witnesses to them. But make up your mind not to worry beforehand how you will defend yourselves. For I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict.
Turn back to Acts. The sermon of Stephen is a masterpiece of truth put in a clever and undeniable fashion. But the listeners were beyond caring about truth and were only interested in position. Stephen answers their charges in such a way that they are thrown back on those making those charges.
They charged that he was against Moses. Stephen shows from History how Moses, their savior from Egypt, was treated by the Jews. He also shows how their forefathers treated Joseph, the one who was to become their savior from famine. Much more is implied in this sermon than is said: things the Pharisees would have picked up. All were aware that both saviors, Joseph and Moses, took wives who were foreigners. The implication is, when they rejected the next Savior, Jesus, He too could get a wife who was not of their people. The bride of Christ is His church. The Gospel went to all the world because the Jewish people rejected it. And now all are welcome to be the bride of Christ.
They charged that Stephan was against the laws of Moses, speaking mainly of the Sanctuary service. But Stephan shows them how they have been commandment breakers throughout history by worshiping idols and murdering the prophets.
They charged that Stephen was against the Temple. Stephen showed them from the story of Abraham how God needs no temple to dwell in man. God led Abraham from place to place and dwelt in his heart. Listen to Stephen in Acts 7:48. "However, the Most High does not live in houses made by men. As the prophet says: 'Heaven is my throne and the earth is my footstool. What kind of house will you build for me?' Says the Lord. 'Or where will my resting place be? Has not my hand made all these things?'"
That did it. Ellen White wrote in her book The Acts of the Apostles, "When Stephen reached this point, there was a tumult among the people. When he connected Christ with the prophecies and spoke as he did of the temple, the priest, pretending to be horror-stricken, rent his robe. To Stephen this act was a signal that his voice would soon be silenced forever. He saw the resistance that met his words and knew that he was giving his last testimony. Although in the midst of his sermon, he abruptly concluded it.
"Suddenly breaking away from the train of history that he was following, and turning upon his infuriated judges, he cried: (in verse 51) 'you stiff-necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit! Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him-- you who have received the law that was put into effect through angels but have not obeyed it.'"
Notice the difference in how these people reacted to true accusations and how Stephan reacted to false ones. Verse 54: When they heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him.
I thought of doing a demonstration of that, but couldn't figure out how to gnash teeth. My dentist would probably not appreciate it. I don't know how they do that. But leave it to be said "They're angry!" The Pharisees of today are the same as yesterday. In God's chosen church. Seekers of power, control, or position; fearful of maturity in the Faith. Straining gnats while swallowing camels. Their heads are so far in the sand that the bottoms of their feet are getting sunburned. These are the people who would rather crucify Jesus than have their knowledge of the game questioned. These are the people who would rather stone Stephen than allow him to point out that they are on the wrong track. The Pharisees did not like Jesus and Stephen pointing out Scripture that they were not quite as familiar with. They did not like Jesus and Stephen trying to deepen the meaning of the Scriptures that they thought they knew so well. They did not like this because it forced them to understand that it was not about them but it was about Him! It forced them to accept that they had been playing the game all along in order to avoid the reality of grace.
For you see, grace cannot be placed in a box like a game. Grace causes you to step out of the box and into faith. Then, the rules are put into the context of reality and actually make sense. The rules quit being a way to win and become a guide to being graceful ourselves because Jesus already won! Did you catch that? It's not up to us to win, because Jesus already did! The rules are there to help us treat each other as we don't deserve: with grace.
A member of a church that I used to pastor lived many miles out in the country. His little trailer was old, falling apart, not even quite level. It was covered with moss and some other green and grey stuff that I could not name, and wasn't sure I wanted to. The first time I visited him, he invited me in. Cats were everywhere. Over 30 lived with him inside the trailer and that many again under it. In fact, he wasn't sure how many he had, because each time he counted them, there were more! The smell was overpowering. I made the mistake of going dressed up. And I walked in and the house was a mess, and I don't usually notice these things. But it looked like some beast had been cooked on the stove and had been there for three months, and the cats were eating it. And he invited me to sit down. I knew that I would be taking my suit to the drycleaners, because cat hair was everywhere. And I sat with him because I liked this man a lot. I just made sure that later visits were on sunny days so that we could meet outside. We started to talk about things, and we discussed his cats, and how many he had. And he said "Pastor, I've got a problem." And I said "What's that?" He said, "Fleas! I don't know how to get rid of the fleas! Pastor, I've tried everything to get rid of them. I've sprayed, I've dusted with flea powder. But they always return. What can I do?" Sometimes, I speak without thinking. I said, "Maybe you should get rid of the cats!" The look on his face said, "You've got to be kidding!" What came out of his mouth was, "You've got to be kidding! I love my cats."
Jesus compared the rules game of the Pharisees to straining gnats while swallowing camels. They were very careful to strain the bugs out of the grape juice. That's where the saying came from 'Strain the gnats out, we don't want the grape juice to be impure, then it wouldn't be pure. Then it wouldn't be kosher.' But Jesus points out that in the vat of grape juice over there is a camel, taking a swim! Satan wants us to swat at gnats all day long and ignore the camel. It takes up all of our time, all of our energy, and all of our vitality. You can't get rid of the fleas until you've got the cat out of the house. But when we allow Jesus to lead the camel out of the tent, guess what follows it. The gnats! All the little things that we worry about go with the camel. They will take care of themselves and we can go on about what we were supposed to be doing to begin with.
Look at verse 55. But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. "Look," he said, "I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God."
He could have said nothing to infuriate them more! To equate Jesus with God was unforgivable! Verse 57. At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." Then he fell on his knees and cried out, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." When he had said this, he fell asleep.
Even in pain and death, Stephen is like Jesus. How? He was full. He was full of the Holy Spirit. He was full of wisdom. He was full of God?s grace. He was full of God?s power. He was full of faith. He was full! He wasn't full of rage. He wasn't full of animosity. He wasn't full of criticism; he was full of God. Stephen's last words proclaimed the deity of Jesus.
As the days of Earth's history come to a close, God's last day church will face the same challenges as the early Christian church. How will each of us be found? Will we be with the group that is overly concerned with straining gnats? Or will we stand for the One who can remove the Camel? How can we stand as Stephen did? By being as full as he was. Then, whatever happens to us doesn't matter, because the Gospel will spread. And we, too, will see Jesus standing at the right hand of the Father.
When I was young, there was a comedian on TV who became famous for smashing watermelons with a sledge-hammer. The first few rows of the audience would cover themselves in plastic to avoid the worst of the mess. What happened when the watermelon was hit with the hammer? Was the melon destroyed? No! It was just slung everywhere. Not one bit of the watermelon was missing, it was still there, but it spread. It was impossible to totally clean up.
That is what happened when they murdered Steven. They tried to stomp out the flame of the Holy Spirit and destroy the Christian movement. It did not destroy the church as they had hoped. It scattered it and made it impossible to contain.
Look at chapter 8:1 And Saul was there, giving approval to his death. (By the way, Saul did not realize at the time that he would become Stephen?s spiritual heir.) On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him. But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison. Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.
This was the beginning of the missionary movement around the world that is still going on today. Ellen White says; "When they were scattered by persecution they went forth with missionary zeal. They realized the responsibility of their mission. They knew that they held in their hands the bread of life for a famishing world; and they were constrained by the love of Christ to break this bread to all who were in need." (Acts of the Apostles p.106)
The stoning of Steven forced the great Gospel Commission to begin. "Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age." Matthew 28:19-20
The Acts of the Apostles by Ellen White Exploring Acts by John Phillips
Hymn of Praise: #92, This Is My Father's World Scripture: Acts 7:55,56 Hymn of Response: #509, How Firm a Foundation
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last updated 16/07/05 by Bob Beckett and Eric Koester.