What's about to follow in Stephen's preaching and persecution and eventual martyrdom could be interpreted as his being too direct, too "truth" oriented, or too heavy. Like, maybe Stephen could have taken a more seeker friendly approach. Afterall, it seems to be our sensibility that if follower of Christ was truly following Christ they would be warmly received and treated kindly... you know like Jesus was.
Oh, wait... that's right. He was crucified. And of course we are responsible as Christians to faithfully represent Jesus' words and ways, but there is a real hostility to the gospel in the world, and faithfulness to Christ will be the reason we are sometimes mistreated and rejected. What I love is Luke, in his writing, doesn't allow us to interpret this as any fault of Stephen's. His description of Stephen is that he was "full of GRACE and power..." Full of Grace, like Jesus. Rejected, falsely accused, and killed, like Jesus.
Stephen has people arguing with him, attacking him, accusing and slandering him, and yet the description we receive of him are things like full of grace, full of wisdom, and full of the Spirit. Being all of those things doesn't insulate us from opposition, criticism or difficulty, and sometimes it may just cause it. And even in the midst of it all, his countenance doesn't fall or change... "his face was like the face of an angel..." (v.15).
What Stephen is representing to us, and what Luke is relaying to us, is that by being grounded in the grace of Christ, abiding in the love of the Father, and being submitted to and filled with the Spirit, we can honor those who hate us, speak truth gently to opponents, and suffer at the hands of oppressors while still loving them. On our own, these things are impossible. We are powerless to live out these ideals in our own strength but the power and grace of Jesus gives us the power to be like Jesus.
*Side Note: There are many who believe that the Holy Spirit ceased to do miraculous signs and wonders after the early church age, because signs and wonders were only given to the Apostle's in order to accredidate their preaching ministry and witness to the resurrection of Jesus. (People who believe this are called Cessationists). Stephen is a clear example of a non-Apostle performing signs and wonders. This supports the belief among continuationists (those who believe that the ministry of signs and wonders is still included in the ministry of the Holy Spirit throughout the church age, until Jesus returns), that signs and wonders are not only reserved for the Apostles, but they are gifts of the Spirit which he manifests as he sees fit through his people.
Stephen's sermon begins with a familiar frame of reference for his audience. He's connecting to their history and their shared story, rooted in Abraham. He will track that all the way to Jesus, showing how all of the biblical story is paving the way for Christ and pointing us toward Christ.
Stephen is reminding them of the promises of God and tracing them throughout Israel's story. This reminds me of the multifaceted nature of the gospel. The gospel is the good news of Jesus Christ and all that he accomplished through his life, death and resurrection. It's an announcement of the victory he has secured on our behalf. It's good news about a real event that took place at a real time. But that announcement is not news about an event that took place in a vacuum or about an event that only relates to the past. This event took place in a particular context and which reshaped history and continues to break into the present with real impact.
The power of the gospel announcement resides in the news of Jesus itself, but it derives that power in part from the gospel story. This news of Jesus invaded human history, specifically in the story of Israel, and then reaching out to the story of all peoples. Stephen is showing us just how glorious the gospel announcement is by reintroducing and clarifying the dark and gloomy backdrop into which the light of the gospel exploded. The gospel will only be as sweet and savory to us as is the bitterness of our sin and situation apart from the gospel. We want to avoid reminders of failure and weakness and helplessness. We want to not revisit pain or admit need. But we have to be willing to look the world, humanity, and our own lives as they really are if we are to fully appreciate the depth of God's grace to us in Jesus.
All of our stories can be traced back to what Stephen is unpacking here. We will watch this progress tomorrow and the next day... I hope we'll see ourselves, our own journey, our own sin, our own need, and lean into our own redemption.
We're walking through Exodus on Sunday mornings right now, so this section is connecting us pretty explicitly to that. What I was noticing here is that even New Testament preaching, if it is to be faithful, is biblical. Stephen is preaching the Bible. He is going through Exodus. Literally, he is preaching the same thing in the 1st century that I'm preaching right now in the 21st century.
Brothers and sisters, of first importance in discipleship and choosing a church to belong to is place yourself under the faithful preaching of God's Word. Don't get distracted or caught up in charasmatic personalities, or gifted communicators if it is not biblical. There is nothign wrong with being a good communicator or charismatic speaker, but those are not what make for empowered preaching. God has commanded the preachign of the word and his Spirit empowers the preaching of the word; not the preaching of our own ideas or thoughts or opinions; not the well-intentioned, entertainment with moralistic principles; not telling people what they want to hear. The Spirit of God empowers the preaching of the Scriptures which he inspired to be written and faithfully preserved for the revelation of Jesus Christ and the salvation of guilty sinners.
Don't stray from your Bibles and don't stay under leadership that strays from their Bibles. We grow on a steady diet of the word of God.
Are you exposing yourself to faithful preaching and teaching of the Word?
Are you faithfully exploring the Word yourself, and learning to study and apply the Word to your life?
Stephn continues through Israel's history in a brief summary of their cycles of rebellion, tracing it all the way to his own day and his own audience whom he rebukes for their hardness of heart. Full of grace, we're told back in v. 8, Stephen is also full of truth (like Jesus), telling them they are resisting the Holy Spirit like their fathers. That they are repeating the patterns that have played thorughout generations of Hebrews. Stephen is saying they persecuted the prophets who promised the coming of Christ, while they are persecuting the Apostles and people bearing witness to Christ, who fulfilled those promises. This is a sharp rebuke. A stern warning. A bold and prophetic call to repentance.
The content of this message is not much different than Peter's sermons in Acts 3 and 4. And in those cases, gobs of people were saved. In this instance, they resist. The faithfulness of the preacher and the truthfulness of the preaching cannot be determined only by the response of the people. Stephen and Peter are both faithful, but to differing results. Jeremiah was called in the OT to prophecy to a people who not listen or receive him. He was told that ahead of time. That they rejected him didn't prove he was unfaithful by any stretch. Instead, it proved that God was true and faithful even when people aren't.
Charles Spurgeon famously wrote that, “The same sun which melts wax hardens clay. And the same Gospel which melts some persons to repentance hardens others in their sins.”
The important thing today for you and me is how does the gospel impact us? How do you respond to the faithful preaching of God's word?
Does it soften and tenderize your heart? Or does it harden and cement your heart?
Does the seed of the gospel, sown again and again into your heart, land on the rocky path, among thorns, in shallow soil that springs up without roots, or does it find fertile ground in which deep roots form, watered and nourished by grace, for the yielding of fruit in due season?
This is a deeply emotional scene. Stephen is being tortured and executed because of his devotion to Jesus, and he doesn't lose sight of Christ in the middle of it, but instead, receives a vision of Jesus to sustain him. To hold this vain world dear to us, esepcially in comparison to glory, proves how small are thoughts of Jesus, heaven and eternity really are. Stephen was faced with reality of this earthly life and the reality of everlasting life, and there was no cmoparison. He saw the distinction between them more vividly and clearly than any of us, and he didn't clamor for the world at all.
If the world in that moment was of any value, he could have recanted, renounced his faith, appealed for his life, or gotten angry with his persecutors who would rob him of this life. With the pain and anguish of the moment it would have made sense for him to at least lose some spiritual perspective. But a glimpse of glory and Jesus kept him transfixed. In that moment, he counted all earthly things rubbish that he might gain Christ. He found the light and momentary affliction of no comparison to the glory that would be revealed in him.
I love this because I lose sight of heaven and eternity so easily. The things of earth distract me so effortlessly. I have inflated views of earthly comforts and worldly things, and far too diminished views of eternal comforts and heavenly things. But I gaze upon earthly realities often, even daily. I only glimpse heavenly realities occasionally and dimly.
I'm stirred by the fact that Stephen gazed upon Jesus and His glory, and he saw his suffering through to the end with love, compassion and grace upon him, because what he gazed upon was worth it. He didn't look upon Jesus in great suffering and tap out. He didn't rethink things at that point. He didn't second guess his surrender to Christ. Everything came into focus for him, in a way that it won't likely for any of us until death, and he peacefully ran into the arms of Jesus. Whatever I can't see now, or lose sight of regularly, Stephen saw clearly, and he didn't turn away from it. Whatever pain I endure; whatever difficulty and struggle finds me; whatever cost there is to following Jesus; whatever trials and temptations come my way; there is this ultimate reality... IT WILL ALL BE WORTH IT. Jesus will make all sad things untrue.
Oh, how I long to see him and be with him and to be free of myself and this vain world. I think of the old chorus, "Turn your eyes upon Jesus:
Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in His wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,
In the light of His glory and grace.