Living (and Dying) For Christ

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The early church in Jerusalem was growing in leaps and bounds. The apostles were preaching their message of the risen Christ and that same Christ was working through those same apostles to heal the sick. The Holy Spirit was working through the members of the church and more and more converts were joining their quickly swelling ranks.

Peter, John and the other apostles had been arrested a couple of times and told to tone down their preaching. They did the opposite. What else could they do? They had been specifically told by God, through an angel, to preach and preach some more.

It was getting difficult for the religious leaders of Jerusalem to ignore this new religious movement. The last time the apostles were arrested, a member of the Sanhedrin gave the ruling council this piece of advice:

“And so my advice is, leave these men alone. If what they teach and do is merely on their own, it will soon be overthrown. But if it is of God, you will not be able to stop them, lest you find yourselves fighting even against God.” (Acts 5:38, 39 TLB)

The Sanhedrin thought this was good advice and, after beating the apostles, let them go.

They left the Council chamber rejoicing that God had counted them worthy to suffer dishonor for his name. And every day, in the Temple and in their home Bible classes, they continued to teach and preach that Jesus is the Messiah. (Acts 5:41, 42 TLB)

It didn’t take long, however, before the first internal controversy arose involving, of all things, a bunch of widows.

The good, Acts 6:1 – 8

The church was growing like crazy.

But with the believers multiplying rapidly, there were rumblings of discontent. (Acts 6:1 TLB)

That phrase, “with the believers multiplying,” gives us an idea of how quickly this new congregation was growing. In the Greek, “multiplying” is a present participle, meaning “continuous growth.” This new church was welcoming new members continuously. In present-day America where over-all church attendance is dwindling, it seems incredible that this kind of growth was possible. But we know it did happen, and the more members a church has, the more problems it has.

Those who spoke only Greek complained that their widows were being discriminated against, that they were not being given as much food in the daily distribution as the widows who spoke Hebrew. (Acts 6:1b TLB)

Things haven’t changed much in 2,000 years. People are still complaining, in church and out, that others are getting more than they are. In this case, two groups of widows, a Greek group and a Hebrew group, butted heads. The Greek-speaking widows didn’t feel as though they were getting “their fair share” of the free food. Was this a legitimate complaint? The cynic in me says it wasn’t. Everybody wants “free stuff.” The problem, however, was not the distribution of food to widows. The problem was that the complaining threatened the unity of the church. Something had to be done to preserve that unity. The apostles came up with a plan:

Now look around among yourselves, dear brothers, and select seven men, wise and full of the Holy Spirit, who are well thought of by everyone; and we will put them in charge of this business. Then we can spend our time in prayer, preaching, and teaching.” (Acts 6:3, 4 TLB)

Here we have the first deacon board being established. Why seven men? Some think that it was because Jerusalem had been divided up into seven districts and that there were seven smaller, satellite congregations meeting in large homes or buildings, therefore seven deacons would have represented these districts. Others think that the simplest reason is the best reason: In Jewish numerology, “seven” symbolized completeness. It was a sacred number.

The qualifications for deacons were as follows: First, they had to be men. In point of fact, there were female deacons later on in the life of the church. Second, these men had to be believers who were part of the church. No outsiders were to have a part in the government of the church. Third, they had to be men with a good reputation in the community. Fourth, they had to be spiritual men, that is, they had to be “full of the Holy Spirit.” This was the normal, not unusual, expectation of the church. And lastly, deacons needed to be men of wisdom. This “wisdom” was both a native wisdom (they needed to know how to get the job done) as well as the wisdom of the Holy Spirit.

The congregation, pleased at the decisions made by the church leadership, chose seven men. All seven had Greek names, which seems to indicate that they were chosen in deference to the Greek speaking widows who had instigated the controversy. The seven deacons were ordained, that is, they were set apart and the apostles laid their hands on each of them as a sign of their association with them in the work of the Lord.

As a result of this quick action taken by the apostles, the result was obvious:

God’s message was preached in ever-widening circles, and the number of disciples increased vastly in Jerusalem; and many of the Jewish priests were converted too. (Acts 6:7 TLB)

This was an obvious result because the apostles could now devote their entire time and attention to the preaching of the Word, and it is the Word that yields results. The “waiting on tables” part of the ministry was now taken care of by the deacons.

The bad, Acts 6:9 – 15

One of the newly chosen deacons, Stephen, now takes center stage. His name means “crown,” which is appropriate since he would become the first to wear the martyr’s crown. As an aside, Stephen’s martyrdom provides the historical link between Peter and Paul because it is at Stephen’s stoning that Paul, or Saul, is first mentioned.

It seems that Stephen’s gifts put him more in line with the apostles than with the other six deacons who “waited on tables.” Because of Stephen’s effective preaching and the signs that accompanied his ministry, he caught the attention of some other religious types who wanted to argue with him and who eventually accused him of two things: (1) That he was always speaking against the Temple, and (2) that he was changing the law of Moses. These charges served to label Stephen a blasphemer. Of course none of the charges were true, but he was still made to answer them. It may well be that it was his name, a Greek name and not a Jewish name, that caused Stephen to be treated far more harshly than the other apostles were when they were taken into custody.

At this point everyone in the Council chamber saw Stephen’s face become as radiant as an angel’s! (Acts 6:15 TLB)

This is a remarkable sentence. The radiance of Stephen’s face was glowing with God’s glory and presence. This wasn’t the first time God’s glory shined through one of His people:

When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the covenant law in his hands, he was not aware that his face was radiant because he had spoken with the Lord. When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, his face was radiant, and they were afraid to come near him. (Exodus 34:29, 30 NIV)

The ugly, Acts 7:51 – 60

Beginning with Acts 7:2, Stephen give a lengthy reply to the High Priest’s question:

“Are these accusations true?” (TLB)

In fact, Stephen’s answer is a sermon; the longest sermon recorded in Acts. It’s as long as all three of Paul’s put together. This long sermon paints a very bad picture of the Jews. Like Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost, there is a lot of history in Stephen’s sermon, the climax of which comes at verse 51:

“You stiff-necked heathen! Must you forever resist the Holy Spirit? But your fathers did, and so do you! ” (TLB)

Needless to say, the religious leaders were not at all impressed with Stephen. They were enraged. Where did Stephen’s courage come from? The Holy Spirit certainly, but of all the religious leaders listening to this deacon, none was free except Stephen. Robert Frost was right when he wrote:

Freedom lies in being bold.

As Stephen boldly bore down with the truth, the members of the council became disorderly. The Word of God as proclaimed by this Christian convicted these men to such an extent that they interrupted his defense/sermon intent on stoning him to death. Sometimes the objective truth of God’s Word has that effect on people; it drives them to distraction, or in this case, drove these religious leaders to violence.

The Sanhedrin, in their anger and in their disgust with Stephen, became the lawbreakers! They had no authority to sentence this deacon to death, let alone pick up the stones and to carry out a death sentence themselves.

In the midst of this melee, Stephen stood completely at ease, sustained by the risen Lord at God’s right hand.

But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed steadily upward into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at God’s right hand. And he told them, “Look, I see the heavens opened and Jesus the Messiah standing beside God, at his right hand!” (Acts 7:55, 56 TLB)

With that sentence, Stephen guaranteed his death; it was as though he poured gasoline on an open fire. These highly educated men of religion, in a fury and frenzy, dragged Stephen out of town and proceeded to stone him to death. Like Jesus, as Stephen faced certain death, he simply prayed:

And as the murderous stones came hurtling at him, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And he fell to his knees, shouting, “Lord, don’t charge them with this sin!” and with that, he died. (Acts 7:59, 60 TLB)

One of the witnesses of this travesty of justice was a man who will become very prominent in Acts and in the history of the early church:

The official witnesses—the executioners—took off their coats and laid them at the feet of a young man named Paul. (Acts 7:58 TLB)

Evangelist Leonard Ravenhill helps put things in perspective. Stephen was in no way the victim. He was the victor.

Everyone recognizes that Stephen was Spirit-filled when he was performing wonders. Yet, he was just as Spirit-filled when he was being stoned to death.

We who enjoy freedom to preach and teach the Gospel of Jesus Christ in America don’t encounter a lot of persecution. Although that is starting to change, with the IRS and various government agencies abusing their power and authority by targeting Christians and Christian groups or charities for unnecessary audits and “soft persecution,” none of us has been stoned. Yet. But this event changed the early church forever – for the better. It lit the spark that caused these early Christians to get out of Jerusalem and into the unreached Gentile world.

Stephen was dead, but the story was far from over.

Paul was in complete agreement with the killing of Stephen. And a great wave of persecution of the believers began that day, sweeping over the church in Jerusalem, and everyone except the apostles fled into Judea and Samaria. (Acts 8:1 TLB)

Out of tragedy came a golden opportunity for the Gospel to advance into the rest of the world.  And the Lord was working on a man who would soon become the greatest evangelist and preacher the church ever knew.

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