Faithlife Sermons

Stephen: A Model Messenger

Acts of the Holy Spirit Through the Apostles  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  Presented   •  46:14
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INTRO: Last week in our study of the second half of Acts 6, we discussed how Stephen became Stephen. How did the humble helper for charity distribution become a target of the religious establishment and then become the first martyred follower of Jesus? Upon examination, it becomes clear that Luke’s presentation of Stephen is that he was a pivotal man for a pivotal moment, followed in the footsteps of Jesus.
In so doing, Stephen is proof that Jesus continues to work through subsequent generations of believers, and that the Spirit he has given us is able to make us faithful to our Lord. In this section of Acts, then, Stephen becomes to us a model in ministry (as we saw last time), and a model messenger (which we’ll look at for a couple weeks), and a model even in martyrdom. Today we begin tackling the second section concerning Stephen, emphasizing his role as a messenger and the message itself, to get as far as we can in the time we have.

Stephen’s Model (vv. 1-2a)

Acts 7:1–2a (ESV)
And the high priest said, “Are these things so?” And Stephen said: “Brothers and fathers, hear me.
Stephen models gospel witness under duress with calm assurance in God.
[Review] Stephen has been falsely accused by his fellow Hellenists (v. 13), who couldn’t withstand the spiritual wisdom with which he debated them concerning fulfillment and salvation in Jesus Christ (v. 10). They have taken what he said and twisted it to make it sound like he is blaspheming God by attacking the temple (bc he had likely quoted Jesus and begun explaining).
Jesus predicted that Jerusalem and the temple would be destroyed (Lk 19:41-44, a prophecy which we know came true in AD 70). Stephen may have been teaching that the physical temple could not last, but that in the New Covenant God was now present with and in his people by the Holy Spirit, wherever they might be or go.
Jesus had also used the temple as a metaphor for his own death and resurrection: “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” (Jn 2:19) Stephen may have been teaching that much of what the temple stood for was no longer necessary, namely the offering of sacrifices for the forgiveness of sin. Jesus’ death and resurrection was the complete and perfect sacrifice. To devout Jews this would also mean he was attacking “the law… the customs that Moses delivered to us” (vv. 13-14).
Even with these witnesses testifying against him before the Sanhedrin, the highest court in Judaism, Stephen has a calm assurance in God (v. 15), because he is near to God and knows that he is innocent before God and is authorized and empowered by God.
Now Stephen is asked to give answer to these accusations. “Are these things so?”
Even before we get to his response, we might reflect once more on what it takes to be prepared for gospel witness. To do so, let’s look at two NT references that balance/nuance how we are to handle preparation for defense of the gospel. How can we be ready, as Stephen seems to have been ready?
Stephen models preparation without anxious perspiration. (Lk 21:12-15 & 1 Pet 3:14-16)
In the context of describing for his disciples the destruction of the temple and then end of days type tribulation, Jesus said to them…
Luke 21:12–15 ESV
But before all this they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name’s sake. This will be your opportunity to bear witness. Settle it therefore in your minds not to meditate beforehand how to answer, for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict.
Just as others were before him and would be after him, Stephen is a literal fulfillment of this promise. … But what did Jesus mean by not meditating beforehand how to answer?
Peter, who surely would have understood the intent of Jesus’ statement, qualifies with this recommendation for us, again in the context of mistreatment because we belong to and serve Christ.
1 Peter 3:14–16 ESV
But even if you should suffer for righteousness’ sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.
Ignorance isn’t a virtue. (Stephen not only alludes to Scripture, but he quotes it from memory, time and time again.) But if you are prepared with clarity on how the Scripture presents the gospel (“the reason for the hope that is in you”), and if you are honoring Christ the Lord as holy, then you are ready. The Holy Spirit in us will do much more than we could ever do, so we have no need to fret and over-analyze what we would do in a situation like Stephen’s. We should focus our attention on honoring Christ in our hearts and on clarity of mind concerning the hope of the gospel.
So here we have Stephen in one of these exact situations Jesus predicted, and we already know Stephen is full of faith, full of the Spirit (6:5), and therefore full of grace and power (6:8) and wisdom (6:10) by that same Spirit.
Another example Stephen sets for us is how to approach our listeners. Before we get too far into Stephen’s speech, which is the longest discourse in all of Acts, I want us to take note of Stephen’s approach right here at the outset. It is a model of what we just read from Peter in the end of 1 Pet 3:15, “yet do it with gentleness and respect.”
Stephen models concern and respect for his audience, as well as connecting with and understanding them.
Stephen begins: “Brothers and fathers, hear me.”
With this simple opening, Stephen is respectful of his audience and shows care and concern toward his audience. He doesn’t go all John the Baptist on them at the beginning and call them a brood of vipers. Such circumstances ought to be extremely rare. Stephen strikes a note of respect. - We do well do remember that we are never speaking truth in a vacuum. We are speaking to people who matter to God, so they should matter to us. Even when what we must say is confrontational, we must be clear (especially in our own hearts) that we do so out of love for them and faithfulness to God, not out of any animosity or vindictiveness. (“I’ll show you.”)
“Brothers and fathers, hear me.” His plea is not that they would find him innocent of the twisted and exaggerated charges against him. His plea is that they would listen carefully to the message. What he is about to say will not be so much about defending himself as much as being clear about how his audience should view themselves in light of their history, a history that leads to Jesus. His desire is that they would repent of their rejection of God and respond to Jesus in faith.
The second feature of Stephen’s approach demonstrates that he knows his audience and therefore connects with his audience. While you don’t change the message for your audience, you adapt your approach based on the audience and the situation, even though the message is the same (The God of glory and of gracious choosing, a rebellious/rejecting mankind, Jesus the climactic redeemer, to whom you must respond, and such a response yields a life of following Jesus and of fruitful ministry in the Spirit).
As we shall see, Stephen chooses historical review to show his present audience where they themselves actually stand before God. ‘The issue is not about me, but about where you are with relationship to God.’
Stephen is drawing on common connection and understanding with his audience, while at the same time using all that history to build an argument that begins subtly but grows and grows until it crescendos in the ears of his beloved fellow Israelites: ‘If you refuse to respond to what God has communicated through Jesus, you prove yourselves to be the climactic example all those of our people who came before us who refuse to listen to God and instead persecute his prophets, and who have the law but do not keep it, and who have the temple but are trying to confine God to that temple.’
(Stephen’s message models that the OT Biblical storyline matters for a listener’s understanding of God and ourselves and therefore the gospel.)
Stephen will trace through some key figures and features of Israel’s history with God. As we get into this discourse, you might start asking yourself, especially if you are familiar with these characters and rightly presume that Stephen’s audience definitely was as well, “Why doesn’t Stephen cut to the chase? Is he stalling? Is he avoiding the issues they raised? And why does Luke choose to record this whole thing (or as much as he does) in such detail?”
In his historical review, Stephen certainly doesn’t try to be exhaustive, even with regard to the primary figures and features that he addresses. So we must do two things: 1. Try to not lose sight of the forest as we journey through the trees, and 2. Look for connections to the accusations raised (against him) and connections to the climax of his speech (where he turns the tables entirely).
[note v.35 turning point and vv.51-53 climax]

Stephen’s Message (Part One)

Verses 2b-8
Acts 7:2b–3 (ESV)
“The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran, and said to him, ‘Go out from your land and from your kindred and go into the land that I will show you.’
The God of glory - … God initiates, and Abraham responds.
[map of the early migration of Abraham]
Acts 7:4–5 ESV
Then he went out from the land of the Chaldeans and lived in Haran. And after his father died, God removed him from there into this land in which you are now living. Yet he gave him no inheritance in it, not even a foot’s length, but promised to give it to him as a possession and to his offspring after him, though he had no child.
Note that Abraham worshiped and obeyed God before he was in the land of promise, and even while he was only a sojourner in the land of promise.
The land as a place for God’s people is extremely significant here, but not that for Abraham it is yet future, so that the promise and the response are what is emphasized.
In fact, how will Abraham realize this promise for his descendants if he does not even yet have a son in his old age? (Hang on to that thought, because first, there’s another prediction.)
Acts 7:6–7 ESV
And God spoke to this effect—that his offspring would be sojourners in a land belonging to others, who would enslave them and afflict them four hundred years. ‘But I will judge the nation that they serve,’ said God, ‘and after that they shall come out and worship me in this place.’
***
***
Acts 7:8 ESV
And he gave him the covenant of circumcision. And so Abraham became the father of Isaac, and circumcised him on the eighth day, and Isaac became the father of Jacob, and Jacob of the twelve patriarchs.
The sign of God’s covenant with Abraham was circumcision—that all the males presently in his household and born to his household and of his offspring.
Here the patriarchs is a reference to all the sons of Jacob, renamed Israel, from whom would come the twelve tribes of Israel.
The key figure is Abraham, the key feature is God’s promise and prediction, and the focus is God graciously initiating a special relationship and covenant with Abraham and his descendants.
(Theological big picture for us: a people for his own possession, whom he would use to carry forward his plan)
Stephen continues the historical progression with the patriarchs.
Verses 9-16 (& see v. 17)
Acts 7:9–10 ESV
“And the patriarchs, jealous of Joseph, sold him into Egypt; but God was with him and rescued him out of all his afflictions and gave him favor and wisdom before Pharaoh, king of Egypt, who made him ruler over Egypt and over all his household.
Familiar with these occurrences recorded in Genesis, we know that Stephen is really summarizing here. But it is at this point where Joseph’s brothers were jealous and sold him into slavery, that we begin to get the first subtle hint of the theme of rejecting God’s messengers. Joseph had undoubtedly been youthfully unwise to boldly declare his dreams (about him being elevated over the rest in his family), but his brothers behaved wickedly indeed.
“But God was with him.” That’s the bottom line: God’s providential care and control in spite of the wickedness of men. God would keep his promises to Abraham.
The very thing that got Joseph into trouble, dreams, is the very thing God uses to get him out of his afflictions and find him favor with Pharoah. God allows Joseph to interpret dreams (concerning the 7 years of plenty following by 7 years of famine), and both this and his wisdom land him as second over all Egypt.
Acts 7:11–14 ESV
Now there came a famine throughout all Egypt and Canaan, and great affliction, and our fathers could find no food. But when Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt, he sent out our fathers on their first visit. And on the second visit Joseph made himself known to his brothers, and Joseph’s family became known to Pharaoh. And Joseph sent and summoned Jacob his father and all his kindred, seventy-five persons in all.
70 or 75 persons, apparently depending on whether or not you count Joseph’s descendants (Stephen got this number from the Septuagint [Gk translation of the OT] of Gen 46:27).
Everything Stephen summarizes as a result of the famine was by God’s favor to Joseph, that sons of Israel and their children with them were rescued from the famine and became established for four centuries in Egypt (setting up another feature of God’s prediction).
[another map courtesy of Holman Bible Atlas]
Acts 7:15–16 ESV
And Jacob went down into Egypt, and he died, he and our fathers, and they were carried back to Shechem and laid in the tomb that Abraham had bought for a sum of silver from the sons of Hamor in Shechem.
They refers to Joseph and his brothers (Jsh 24:32) being entombed in Shechem. Joseph had already buried his father Jacob in Abraham’s tomb at Machpelah (Gen. 50:13).
There is an issue with Stephen saying Abraham bought the tomb in Shechem because our only other record says in Joshua 24:32 that it was Jacob who bought it from the sons of Hamor. ***
The key figure is Joseph, the key feature is God’s providential care for his people, and the focus is God continuing to fulfill his prediction & promise.
(reference v. 17)
Concluding Application (idea): [subtitle ] using models wisely without unhealthy comparison
God’s Pivotal Men for Pivotal Moments
Stephen, Abraham, Joseph, Moses - Flawed men, Faithful God
(pivotal individuals for pivotal moments - consider Ruth, and Esther, and Deborah, and Hannah. and Mary) But none of them were perfect except Jesus, God in the flesh.
God choose people by his grace, and he uses people, not because they are perfect, but because they are people of faith and obedience.
Will we be people of faith in a faithful God? the God of glory, and the God of grace.
We must not whither under the self-imposed pressure of comparing ourselves to faith models, but we must follow their example of directing our gaze upward in trust and love toward the light of God’s glory and grace, and follow their example of stretching our roots towards the streams of truth and refreshment found in the word of God, where we find the source of our life, even Christ himself. Abiding in him, we allow our Lord bear fruit in us by the work of His Holy Spirit; we let him determine in what way he wants to use us, and how broad or influential our ministry. We are in his care and he knows how to tend his garden. What rest and joy is there to be found in belonging to God and letting him have his way!
Let’s PRAY.
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Further Application, Study, & Discussion:
· How do difficult situations help us remember our dependence on God and teach us to rest in his care? Give specific examples. To what Scriptures do you turn to help you meditate on God’s trustworthiness and care for his people?
· What else about Stephen’s example encourages or challenges you? Be specific.
· What do you walk away with about God from Stephen’s review of the lives of Abraham and Joseph?
· If you could be any person from the OT Scriptures, who would you be and why?
· Read the rest of Stephen’s speech, and take note (& discuss) cues that are tied to Israel’s past and present rejection, as well as to the specific accusations against Stephen.
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