Stephen—A Valuable Life

“Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life.” —Revelation 2:10

WHAT little that is known about the life of Stephen is contained in the sixth and seventh chapters of the Book of Acts. His story begins: “in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplied, there arose a murmuring of the Grecians against the Hebrews because their widows were neglected in the daily ministration. Then the twelve said, it is not reason that we should leave the Word of God and serve tables.”—Acts 6:1,2

The Grecians and Hebrews to which this text refers were all Jews, since the Gospel had not yet gone to the Gentiles. The Grecians were Jews who spoke Greek; the Hebrews were Jews who spoke Hebrew, or, among the common people, Aramaic.

The complaint concerning the brethren of Jerusalem was that the Hebrew-speaking widows were receiving a larger share of the widows’ allotment than those who were Greek-speaking. Widows were dependent upon charity, since few worked outside their homes. When a husband died, the means of support for his wife usually died with him.

The apostles considered this problem and instructed the brethren to select seven individuals as deacons, to serve the food and take care of other necessities, seeing to an equitable distribution for all. The seven chosen have Greek names, and may also have been Greek-speaking. The first mentioned of the seven was Stephen, “A man full of faith, and of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 6:5) So, our first bit of information about Stephen is that he was filled with the Spirit, and as we shall see, it was also the last thing said about him.

“Stephen, full of faith and power, did great wonders and miracles among the people. Then there arose certain of the synagogue which is called the synagogue of the Libertines, and Cyrenians, and Alexandrians, and of them of Cilicia and of Asia, disputing with Stephen. And they were not able to resist the wisdom and the spirit by which he spoke.”—Acts 6:8-10

Let us consider the phrase, ‘synagogue of the Libertines’. The Libertines were Jews who formerly had been carried captive to Rome, and, when liberated at a much later time, retained Greek as their spoken language. Thus, it appears Stephen’s witness activities were vigorous among Greek-speaking Jews. Clearly, he had an excellent knowledge of truth, and his service within the church as a deacon did not interfere with his work of witnessing. It is evident, also, that his knowledge of the truth was so keen that his enemies could not win their arguments by logic. So they tried deceit: “They set up false witnesses which said, This man [said] … this Jesus of Nazareth shall destroy this place and shall change the customs which Moses delivered us.”—Acts 6:13

At this juncture, Stephen was about to enter into an experience similar to that which Jesus went through. False witnesses declared he wanted to destroy the Temple and change the Law of Moses. Subsequently he was brought before the Sanhedrin and forced to answer these charges.

It is easy to picture a hostile Sanhedrin looking for an excuse to kill Stephen. But that probably was not the case. It was the Greek-speaking Jews who hated him, not the Sanhedrin. The high priest had just come through an encounter involving the apostles, described In Chapter Five. When he had them thrown into prison, an angel of the Lord released them. Then Peter, brought before the council, boldly said he would obey God rather than men, and directly accused them of being responsible for the death of Jesus. Angered at this, they decided to kill the apostles, but were thwarted by good advice from Gamallel, a Pharisee: “Refrain from these men and let them alone: for if this counsel or this work be of men, it will come to naught: But if it be of God, ye cannot overthrow it, lest haply ye be found even to fight against God. And to him they agreed.” (Acts 5:38-40) The apostles had been a much greater threat to the council than was Stephen. Since the Sanhedrin had decided against killing the apostles, it is highly improbably they intended to kill Stephen.

However, Stephen’s enemies were forcing the issue. The drama opens with the high priest speaking: “Then said the high priest, Are these things so?” (Acts 7:1) Here the high priest addressed the charges as to whether Stephen believed that the Temple would be destroyed and the Law of Moses changed. Stephen’s reply in defense centered around these two issues, and he selectively drew upon Israel’s history to make his points. In brief, this is what he said:

  1. God worked with Abraham while he was in Mesopotamia.—Acts 7:2-7
  2. God dealt with our forefathers in the land of Egypt.—vss. 8-19
  3. God dealt with Moses in the land of Midian; we learn that at the burning bush, even the land itself was to be considered holy.—vss. 20-34
  4. Moses, the one who was initially rejected as a leader, led the people to freedom.—vss. 35,36
  5. Moses prophesied about one to come, like himself. But the people would not listen to him, preferring to make an idol of gold.—vss. 37-46
  6. Solomon built a Temple for God, but he also said, God does not live in a temple made with hands.—vss. 47-50

Since the Jews believed the Temple represented God’s presence, Stephen selected examples where God worked with those who loved him, even when they were not in the Promised Land, and had no Temple. Solomon himself said God did not live in a man-made temple. So, Stephen’s logic suggests, why be so concerned about whether this Temple stands or falls?

And, concerning the Law of Moses, he said, our forefathers rejected it in favor of an idol of gold, something they made with their own hands. Stephen left the strong implication that his enemies worshiped the Temple as a modern-day idol. The one whom Moses said would come after him, has come, and like your forefathers, you have rejected him.

The council may not have realized initially where Stephen’s logic was leading them, but it was not long before they got the picture! Obviously, something happened in the council chambers. Everything changed, and Stephen ended his defense and launched into a counter-charge of his own: “Ye stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Spirit: as your fathers did, so do ye. Which of the prophets have not your fathers persecuted? And they have slain them which showed before of the coming of the Just One; of whom ye have been now the betrayers and murderers: who have received the Law by the disposition of angels and have not kept it.”—Acts 7:51-53

Strong words, but no stronger than those Peter had used when he addressed this same council! Undoubtedly, the Greek-speaking enemies of Stephen had roared their disapproval of the Old Testament quotation concerning God not living in a Temple made with hands. Stephen could have, at this point, simply remained silent. He would probably have been beaten and released. But he chose to keep talking, and what he said next, sealed his doom: “Behold, I see the heavens opened and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God.”—Acts 7:56

To a Jew, this was the greatest blasphemy possible. Stephen claimed to see God—the God who had told Moses that no man could look upon his face and live. How dared he say he saw God! Questions about the Temple and the Law of Moses faded into insignificance next to this outrage! Although the council was forbidden to execute anyone without the approval of Rome, an angry mob rushed at Stephen, and “they cast him out of the city and stoned him: and the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man, named Saul. And as they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. And he knelt down and cried with a loud voice, Lord, do not hold this sin against them. And when he had said this, he fell asleep.”—Acts 7:58-60, RSV

This murder by an uncontrolled mob shows that they were indeed like their fathers who persecuted the prophets and slew those who talked about the coming of the Just One.—vss. 52

Why Did He Die?

If we were looking for an outstanding leader in the Early Church who was not an apostle, certainly we would think of Stephen. When he was first selected to serve as a deacon, and also just before he died (Acts 7:55), the Scriptures say he was “filled with the Holy Spirit.” His early death seems such a waste of his useful life. What possible good was accomplished by this apparently premature death? First, let us consider the impact it had on Saul, who was “consenting to his death.”—Acts 8:1

The Greek word rendered ‘consenting’, means to agree to a course of action emphatically and with considerable pleasure. Why should Saul care one way or another? Probably because as an expert in the art of debate he found he could not answer Stephen. In Acts 6:9, some from Cilicia disputed with Stephen. In Acts 22:3, it is recorded that Paul was born in Tarsus, a city in Cilicia. Saul probably was among those who disputed with Stephen and, not being able to withstand his logical arguments, hated him because of it. Maybe he thought Stephen’s death would remove a ‘thorn in his side’. But that did not happen.

Paul, later recounting his conversion on the Damascus road, said: “When we were all fallen to the earth, I heard a voice speaking unto me, and saying in the Hebrew tongue, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? It is hard [meaning painful] for thee to kick against the goad.” (Acts 26:14) The dictionary defines a goad as 1) A long stick with a pointed end used for prodding animals; 2) That which prods or urges; a stimulus or irritating incentive.

Saul’s mind might well have been reviewing the Stephen incident; he might have admitted to himself that Stephen had done nothing worthy of death. Yet how Saul hated him because of his wondrous words and debating skill! We notice that Saul did not ask the Lord what ‘kicking against the goad’ was supposed to mean. He knew!

There is irony in Saul’s conversion experience. Stephen had said he saw the “Son of man standing on the right hand of God.” Saul certainly considered this gross blasphemy, and reason enough to execute Stephen. Yet, that is almost exactly the same vision Saul himself had on the road to Damascus!

An important accomplishment of Stephen’s death was its effect on Saul. Although he did not know it at the time, Saul’s involvement with Stephen’s murder was to haunt him the rest of his life and bring to him a great measure of humility. He said, “I am the least of the apostles, that am not meet to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.”—I Cor. 15:9

The question arises, how did Luke, the writer of Acts, know in such detail what Stephen had said? The information undoubtedly came from an eyewitness, and that must have been Paul. As far as Paul was concerned, his experiences with Stephen were unforgettable.

Stephen’s death also accomplished another important objective: “At that time there was a great persecution against the church which was at Jerusalem; and they were all scattered abroad throughout the regions of Judaea and Samaria, except the apostles.” (Acts 8:1) Prior to this time, the Early Christians stayed close to home. But beginning with the stoning of Stephen, the opponents of the truth became bold, and increased the persecution upon all the disciples, scattering them into the surrounding country. And, of course, with this scattering there began the preaching of the Gospel in all the world. A short time later, the first Gentile convert, Cornelius, was welcomed into the fellowship, and the message spread still farther.

What Can We Learn from Stephen’s Life?

Was Stephen’s early death a wasted life? Not at all. Few lives have done more in the service of the Master. And even in death, its value in the later conversion and apostleship of Paul was immeasurable. We can learn several lessons from this faithful follower of the Master:

  1. Stephen’s assigned duties in the church did not curtail his outside witnessing.

Our life together in the church is wonderful. But our commission is to preach the Gospel message to those around us. —“Yea, woe unto me, if I preach not the Gospel!”—I Cor. 9:16

  1. He served his Master enthusiastically even if it meant losing his own life.

Are we sacrificing anything for our Master? More than that, are we doing our sacrificing enthusiastically? Persecution must not cause us to change our relationship to God. In fact, it is an evidence of the Holy Spirit in our lives: “Yea, all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution.”—II Tim. 3:12

  1. He loved his enemies.

It was hard for people to understand what it meant to love their neighbor. But Jesus taught that even that was not enough: “I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you.”—Matt. 5:44

  1. He was filled with the Holy Spirit from start to finish.

We can be filled with the Spirit only to the degree we eliminate the spirit of the world from our hearts and lives.

There is no question that Stephen made his calling and election sure. He knew, as Paul did, when he wrote his second letter to Timothy, that he had fought a good fight and “henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day.” (II Tim. 4:8) Stephen fell asleep in death, but with full assurance of his faithfulness. May we learn well the lessons of Stephen’s life, and also be found faithful!

Dawn Bible Students Association
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