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"The Church's First Martyr"
Wednesday Evening Home Bible Study
February 27, 2008
Theme: The story of the martyrdom of Stephen illustrates how God's message of redemption is often resisted by those who most need it.
The book of Acts not only tells the story of how the early church was used by God to spread the gospel. It also tells us the story of how that gospel message was resisted by those who most needed it. But this is as Jesus had promised. He said that He sends His followers out as “sheep in the midst of wolves” who would deliver them up to councils and scourge them in the synagogues (Matthew 10:16-17). But Jesus also promises that His followers would be brought before governors and kings for His sake “as a testimony to them and to the Gentiles” (v. 18). He even says that some of His followers would be delivered over to death for His sake (v. 21).
It's interesting that the same word for “witness” in the original language of the New Testament is the one from which we get the word “martyr”. And in this portion of Acts, when the witness of Jesus Christ was spreading throughout Jerusalem, we read of the church's first “martyr”.
Stephen was a great man of God. His character is testified to us in 6:5—that he was “a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit”. And the story of his martyrdom for Jesus teaches us many things. From the standpoint of the flow of history in Acts, it shows us what led to the first great persecution of the church (8:1ff); but also that led to the gospel being spread to the regions beyond Jerusalem (see Acts 1:8). But it also teaches us some important personal lessons. It teaches us an example of bold and faithful gospel preaching in the face of fierce opposition. It teaches us that the gospel that we preach is not in any way contrary to the message of the Old Testament Scriptures—but is, in fact, the fulfillment of them. It teaches us that those for whom the gospel is meant first often resist it most. And it teaches us the attitude of heart that we, as followers of Jesus, should exhibit toward those who persecute us.
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I. THE MINISTRY OF STEPHEN (6:8-10).
A. Stephen apparently stood out as a man very useful to the cause of Christ. He is described as “full of faith and power”; and one who did “great wonders and signs among the people” (6:8). This shows that the church's choice of Stephen as a man into whose hands ministry could be entrusted was a wise one (6:3).
B. Stephen's ministry was not only practical, but also apologetic. He clearly argued for the testimony of Jesus Christ so powerfully that he aroused the opposition of those in Jerusalem who were “not able to resist the wisdom and Spirit by which he spoke” (vv. 9-10). Note that it wasn't simply his wisdom that had a powerful impact; but also the spirit in which he expressed it. Many times we undo our arguments for the faith by the way we behave in presenting them. Stephen was consistent in both wisdom and spirit. C. Particular mention was made of those who were from what was called “Synagogue of the Freedmen”. Judging from the regions from which these individuals came, they may have been Hellenistic (Greek-speaking) Jews who were, nevertheless, devoted to Judaism. Special mention is made of Cilicia, which was were Saul of Tarsus (later to be known to us as Paul the Apostle) came from (Acts 21:39; see 7:58).
II. THE TRIAL OF STEPHEN (6:11-15).
A. When they could no longer resist his arguments, they hatched a plan to silence Stephen. They secretly induced men who bore a false witness against him that he spoke blasphemous words against Moses and against God (v. 11), in order to stir up the people against his witness (v. 12). What an example of godly character Stephen sets for us! May we live in such a way that the only accusations that can be brought against us are false ones!
B. When he was seized and brought before the council, the false accusation that was brought against him was that he continually spoke against the temple and the law of Moses; and that the Jesus he testified to would destroy the temple and change the customs Moses had given them (v. 13-14). This accusation is important in light of the response Stephen gives in the chapter that follows. It's also interesting that it's very much the same accusation that they brought against Jesus (Matthew 26:61), and against Paul (Acts 21:28).
C. Remarkably, Stephen manifested that God's hand was visibly upon him—even in such a way that the accusers saw it (v. 15). This suggests that Jesus' promise in Matthew 10:19 —that what was needed to be said by Jesus' suffering witnesses would be given to them in the hour they needed it—was now being fulfilled in Stephen.
III. THE TESTIMONY OF STEPHEN (7:1-53).
A. The question was put to Stephen by the high priest, “Are these things so?” (7:1). And Stephen, filled with the Holy Spirit, answers in such a way as to show that the message he preached was not in any way contrary to the testimony of God in the Scriptures. (If you have ever wanted a good summary of Old Testament history, you have it in Acts 7.) Stephen speaks of five main points in Israel's history. . .
1. God's call of Abraham from paganism to the promised land and the birth of his offspring (vv. 2-8).
2. God's protection of the sons of Jacob from famine through Joseph in the land of Egypt (vv. 9-16).
3. God's deliverance of His people from bondage through the hand of Moses (vv. 17- 36).
4. God's punishment of the people of Israel during their time of rebellion in the wilderness (vv. 37-43).
5. God's provision to the people of Israel of the dwelling place He had promised them (vv. 44-50).
B. A few things stand out in Stephen's review of history. First, it's clear that, throughout, there is a great theme of God's “promise”: a promise of a land (v. 3), an inheritance (vv. 4-5), an offspring (v. 5), a deliverance (vv. 6-7, 34), a covenant (v. 8), a future Prophet (v. 37), and a worship that would be beyond that contained strictly in the temple (vv. 48-50). It also highlights the resistance of the Jewish nation as God brought about those promises: resistance to the righteous (v. 9), to their deliverer (v. 25, 35, 40), to God's law (v. 38-39), and to the pure worship of the one true God alone (v. 41-43).
C. This last point (that is, Israel's persistent resistance to the things that God was offering to them) constituted the strong rebuke that Stephen expresses in verses 51-53. God had made promises to His people—chief of them being the promise of the “Just One” (v. 52); and yet, they had been rebellious and stubborn. They were even then resisting the Holy Spirit as their fathers had done—who persecuted the prophets God had sent them. They had even betrayed and murdered the Savior Himself; “who have received the law by the direction of angels and have not kept it” (v. 53). The justification of this final rebuke seems to be the reason for the long history Stephen recites before his fellow Jews. It would have been impossible for them to argue against the facts of the case.
IV. THE MARTYRDOM OF STEPHEN (7:54-60).
A. This final rebuke is said to have “cut” Stephen's opposers “to the heart”—but not in the sense that the people of Jerusalem had experienced in 2:37. There, they pleaded with Peter to tell them what they needed to do. Here, they “gnashed at him with their teeth” in anger (v. 54).
B. As they raged at Stephen, the Holy Spirit lifted him beyond the opposition to the very throne of heaven. He was given a vision of Jesus standing at the right hand of the glory of God (v. 55-56). Perhaps Jesus was “standing” as a way of expressing His readiness to receive His beloved witness Stephen into His own presence.
C. When Stephen expressed his wonder at this, it proved to be too much for the unbelievers. They cried out with a loud voice and stopped their ears, as they ran upon him with one accord (v. 57). They grabbed Stephen and cast him out of the city to execute him by stoning. Here, we're given our first introduction to Saul of Tarsus; because he gave consent to Stephen's execution by watching the cloaks of those who stoned him (v. 58; see also Acts 22:20).
D. Stephen's character is shown in that he—just like His Lord—prayed for those who killed him. He prayed humbly that God would receive his spirit; and as he died he prayed with a loud voice, “Lord do not charge them with this sin” (vv. 59-60). And with that, he “fell asleep” (see 1 Thess. 4: 13-18).