The Empire Strikes Back

Acts 6:8 – 8:3

If your name is Stephen, you have big shoes to fill. Your name in Greek means “crown” – specifically the victor’s wreath given to a military or athletic champion – it was Paul’s “crown of righteousness” that he looked forward to being awarded by the Lord as he crossed his victory line into heaven. But this morning we’ll be looking at one particular Stephen who would forever mark that name with a special honor and significance as the first Christian to give his life for his faith.

We met Stephen three weeks ago as one of those six men who were chosen by the church and commissioned by the apostles to serve the needs of the widows in Jerusalem. These six men were “opportunity” men – you remember what I mean by that – what could have been a problem that split the church apart became an opportunity for even greater growth and effectiveness. God used them in a powerful way to turn a situation that had Satan’s fingerprints all over it, into a living testimony for God’s church.

We learn quickly that Stephen isn’t a one talent man. Back in vs. 5, Luke tells us that Stephen was “a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit.” Now in vs. 8, we see Stephen’s role developing far beyond delivering meals-on-wheels to shut-ins – Acts 6:8: “Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people.”

And as we have already learned to anticipate, anytime something great is being done in God’s name, you can expect opposition to arise quickly – vss. 9-14: 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. 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.”

It’s funny – the Sanhedrin always are taken aback whenever they face these Christians. When Peter and John stood before them, they expected a couple of uneducated hicks from the backwoods, but they were astonished when they saw their courage and their powerful presence and noted that these men had been with Jesus. In ch. 5, when all of the apostles are before them, Gamaliel steps in and warns his fellow Sanhedrin not to kill them because you don’t want to find yourselves fighting against God.

And now, here is Stephen – and once again, he is anything but an ordinary man – vs. 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.”

The high priest asks him a simple question, “Are these charges true?” But Stephen gives him the long answer. In fact, he preaches a full length sermon – the second longest recorded sermon in the New Testament – 52 verses / over 1200 words (the Sermon on the Mount has about 2400 words). And what is interesting about this sermon is that it is really nothing more than a history lesson – he begins with Abraham, preaches through the patriarchs, through Moses, Joshua, David, Solomon – and about this time they are starting to look at their watches and think, “isn’t he ever going to finish?” But then in vs. 51, Stephen pounds the pulpit and starts stompin’ on toes – “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.”

You saw what happened in ch. 4 when they dragged Peter and John before the Sanhedrin – they threatened them. In ch. 5 when they dragged all the apostles before the Sanhedrin – they threatened them and flogged them. Every confrontation has escalated to a new level of hostility from the Sanhedrin. Now, Stephen drives them beyond their breaking point and not even Gamaliel could have averted this train wreck – Acts 7: 54-58a : When they heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. 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.” 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.

7: 59-60: 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.

It is not just an execution. It is a brutal murder by a mob who is inflamed with rage. But even in the face of a mob – even as he is being crushed with stones – there is a calm serenity about Stephen – a confidence that engulfs him – and more than that – a Christlike spirit of forgiveness as he, like his Savior cries out, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”

I skipped a half a verse back in vs. 58, because it is our introduction to one of the most significant men who has ever lived – and I wish we could read this as though we had never heard the name before, because what we learn of him here and what happens to him later would blow our minds – Luke tells us, “Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul.” And then in 8:1, “And Saul was there, giving approval to his death. 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.”

Two incredible events were just set in motion:
Number one is the introduction of Saul – and of course you know him as the Apostle Paul. But, like I said – if you were reading this for the first time and had just read about Saul murderously hunting down the Christians to put them in prison and have them executed – if I was to then tell you – “You’ll never believe it, but God’s going to make him the greatest proclaimer of Christ and defender of the church that ever lived” – you would laugh in disbelief. “No way, no how – God could never change him that much.” But you’ll see – and what makes Paul’s story so incredible is that it begins here.

The second event is another chapter in Satan’s attempt to destroy the church. And this time it looks like he’s going to get the job done. Persecuted, scattered, frightened, homeless. Back in Jerusalem everything was going their way – the church was strong, growing bigger every day, harmony and peace – but now, they’re running for their lives, being hunted down and thrown in prison. It sounds like the worst thing that could have happened to the church just did.

But as we’ve learned to expect from God, the worst thing that we could imagine, is often the best thing that could possibly happen. Because when we get to vs. 4, we read that “Those who had been scattered preached the word wherever they went.” What was basically an isolated, local phenomenon, now goes international. I’ve described it before as a wildfire in dry grass, or blowing a dandelion into the wind. What had been contained has been released like spilling a bowl full of ball bearings on a cement floor. It can never be the same again.
As Christians are scattered from Jerusalem, the full implications of Jesus’ Great Commission take on a meaning they had never imagined – “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation.” Suddenly, “all the world” is bigger than their comfortable little corner or it.

When things are going well, it’s easy to get lulled into complacency. We have our routine – we don’t think outside our box. It takes a jolt to get us off of high center. And sometimes that jolt is an unpleasant experience. Sometimes it’s worse than unpleasant – it’s a terrible tragedy – and all we can see is the awfulness of the situation.

How could anyone read Acts 7 and find anything good about Stephen being stoned to death and Saul hunting down and killing Christians and the church being persecuted and scattered. No matter which way you configure that equation it comes out bad – until you introduce God into the equation.

I don’t care what storm is whipping you around, what war is being waged, what tragedy has befallen you. There is nothing that you are going through that God cannot turn into a victory. That doesn’t mean people didn’t lose their lives or that families weren’t torn apart or that the church in Jerusalem wasn’t forced into hiding. What it does mean is that God’s plan was fulfilled and God’s name was glorified.

In your life – whatever you are going through – are you being driven to depend on God, and is God being glorified in your life? That’s what he wants most for your life. It’s nice to have comfort and prosperity and freedom from pain, but God does his best work through the storms that we go through. That’s when we learn the most about God’s love and care – that’s when we experience his richest blessings – that’s when we are forced to realize how much we truly need God. Here is what Paul wrote when he himself learned this lesson: “For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all.”

God’s plan for this church – God’s plan for your life – is not that you go unscarred and unscathed. His plan is that his word be preached and his name be glorified. And it may be through my suffering that doors are opened into people’s lives to share the gospel. It may be through a terrible tragedy that the world gets to see what real faith looks like as we cling faithfully to God in the midst of it. God may have to uproot my life and wrench me out of my comfort zone to take me to a new level in my relationship with him. We may beg God to deliver us from some unbearable situation – and God’s reply may be – “you’re exactly where I need you to be.”

Illust. – Responses to Cancer #391