As we continue our study of Acts, we come to realise the repeated attempts of the infernal kingdom to disrupt and destroy the Church through verbal threats, physical pain, shame (imprisonment), infiltration, and now killing.
But before we get to the killing, we need to backtrack a little in our story – i.e. the story of Stephen – how he came into the picture of the early Church.
Story of Stephen (Acts 6:8–7:1)
Interestingly, Stephen entered into the scene through a commotion in the Church, where the Greek-speaking Jews were complaining about their widows being left out in the daily distribution of foods. The apostles were spiritually discerning, noting that the situation calls for an empowerment of others to expand the ministry, instead of carrying administrative and logistical duties themselves. Thus, the proposal was made to select seven men who were full of the Spirit and wisdom to carry out the task of distributing food to widows in the Church efficiently and equitably. It is important to note that these seven men, though were primarily selected to carry out administrative and logistical tasks in the Church, were expected to possess spiritual qualities.
Stephen was one of the seven men chosen. But, very quickly, he distinguished himself from the rest – “a man full of God’s grace and powers, did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people.”
Obviously, Stephen saw himself not as simply a deacon, assigned to only administrative duties. Instead, Stephen saw himself as a spiritual leader, alongside the apostles, though of a lower order. Nonetheless, Stephen began to preach and teach, especially he used his oratory gifts for witnessing.
However, no sooner than he had started, there arose opposition against him. These people who set themselves against him for the simple reason that they found Stephen’s reasoning ability far above them, as suggested by the phrase – “but they could not stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by whom he spoke.” These men were from the Freeman Synagogue, of which Saul (who later became the apostle Paul) was a ruling member.
They incited the people against him by even bringing forward false witnesses, charging him for blasphemy (sounds familiar? Jesus was similarly charged). They accused him of speaking against the Temple and the Law. When words couldn’t achieve what they wanted, these men resorted to violence – they arrested Stephen and brought him before the Sanhedrin. This brings us to the next part of my reflection.
Story of God (Acts 7:2–50)
When Stephen was brought before the Sanhedrin, he was asked if the charges against him were true. Instead of offering a logical defence, Stephen started a long story – the story of God, from Abraham to Moses.
Stephen, obviously by the power of the Holy Spirit, carefully told the story, leading to the defense against the two charges brought against him, namely the Temple and the Law.
The story of Abraham to Moses illustrated the key truth that the people of God should know – that the God who created the universe and everything in it does not dwell in houses or temples made by humans. The rest of the world, steeped in idolatry, may not know. But the people of God, who had received special revelation of God through the Prophets and the Law should know this truth very well.
The Tabernacle which was erected in accordance with God’s specifications did not mean a stationary or localised God but to symbolise the presence of God among His people! Similarly, with the Temple built by Solomon, though prepared by David, was not intended to localise God, but to launch Israel as a witness to the nations, that there is one true God who dwells among His people! Of course, in and through Jesus Christ, Who is the Word became flesh, we know that God has made His dwelling (literally in Greek tabernacle) among us (John 1:14). Stephen didn’t mention this point for obvious reason, the Gospel of John had yet to be written (somewhere in late AD 90s).
Now, regarding the Law, just like the forefathers of Stephen’s audience, they had received and read the Law but failed to understand God’s will and ways. Instead, they abused the Law to reject and kill the prophets that God had sent to them. Now, Stephen has a chance to link these historical precedents to the present – that they too, the current generation of Jews, had similarly used the Law to reject and kill the Messiah. Of course, the memory was still fresh in the minds of the Jewish leaders – they had demanded the death of Jesus, accusing Him of blasphemy according to their interpretation of the Law.
Now, come the challenge (Truth for Life) segment of Stephen’s story of sermon. He concluded that this current generation – namely the Jewish leaders – was no different from their forefathers – (1) stiff-necked – obviously referring to their stubborn streak of wanting their own ways; (2) with “uncircumcised hearts and ears” – not spiritually discerning in hearing God’s voice; and (3) always resisting the Holy Spirit – disobeying the Word of God – how? – by persecuting and putting to death God’s prophets!
Stoning of Stephen (Acts 7:51–8:1a)
Honestly, if Stephen had an image consultant, he would have been advised to sugar-coat his conclusion. He should not end his sermon with an indictment, charging his audience with sin! But Stephen was not interested in soliciting a position in the Jewish hierarchy or in the early Church. He was not interested in gaining popularity. He was only interested in pleasing God, obeying the Spirit’s leading, and using his gift of speech for the glory of God! Thus, Stephen concluded the way he did, incurring the anger of those in power who would decide whether he would be freed or fried!
As soon as they heard Stephen’s conclusion, the leadership pack went amok – they became a violent mob. They covered their ears (a gesture of refusing to reflect and respond to Stephen’s sermon), gnashed their teeth (a gesture of determination to lynch him), and dragged him out of the city.
There, the violent group of Jewish leaders wasted no time in raining stone after stone at Stephen. As they were stoning him, Stephen looked up to heavens and saw his beloved Lord Jesus Christ, standing beside the Father, perhaps, with the arms opened wide to welcome home His beloved disciple, who was faithful even unto death!
Truth for life
Brothers and sisters, what can we take away from this morning’s reflections? I think there are three principles to be applied to our lives.
First, how do you see your story fit into God’s Story? Stephen might just be another ordinary person like you and me. Yes, he may have a designation or title, but that matters little to the overall arching theme of his life – his story is to be lived out in the Story of God. Stephen saw his life as fulfilling the Story of God and thereby living out our created and redeemed purpose, namely, to glorify God and enjoy Him forever! It was no human act that Stephen was born. It was no accident that Stephen came to believe in Jesus Christ. It was also nothing haphazard that he came to be chosen to serve tables, distributing foods to the widows. It was also nothing natural or random that he was endowed with the gifts of wisdom, administration and oration. How do you see your life? Can you see your life as living out the Story of God – to and for the glory of God?
Let me get more practical and personal. In this current atmosphere of fears and anxieties because of COVID-19, many Singaporeans stormed the supermarkets to stash food and toiletries. Were you one of them? As Jesus’ disciple, were you one of the people who was living by fear and not by faith? (2 Corinthians 5:7)
Secondly, serving God is always costly. Being called by God to a ministry does not necessary ensure a smooth, successful and satisfying ministry experience! You can ask the prophets of the Bible, if they could testify to you in person. You could ask the men and women in Church history, if they could also testify to you physically. David exerts, “I will not offer to the Lord my God sacrifice that costs me nothing” (2 Samuel 24:24) Sometimes serving God can simply inconvenience us, but other times it may involve pain, loss, and even death! Jesus has already warned us, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23)
Let us get more practical and personal!
When you are approached or considering serving in a ministry, do you see it as a matter of your calculation of convenience, commitment level, etc. Or, do you first ask whether God is calling you to do this or that?
The former way is the attitude of a volunteer – you get to choose what is convenient for you or what interests you! The latter is the attitude of a servant – you get to your knees and ask God, “Is this what you want me to do? If it is, I’ll do it even if may inconvenient me and involve personal financial costs!
Third, hearing God’s voice can be uncomfortable. What are we looking for when we come to God in worship? What are we looking for when we turn to the pages of the Bible? Are looking for what we want to look for? Or, are we looking for what God wants to say to me now? The Jewish leaders were like their forbears, treating the Word of God like a buffet meal, picking only what interested and profited them. Perhaps, they subconsciously blanked out those portions of God’s Word, leading them to be spiritually blind to recognise the work of God, and deaf to hear the voice of God!
There was a secondary school boy. From an early age, he was afraid of amphibians and reptiles. Unfortunately, in Secondary school curriculum, he was required to read biology. So, to avoid seeing repeatedly those pictures of frogs and toads, snakes and chameleons, he meticulously and diligently pasted black paper over those portions of his biology textbooks. Some of us are like this boy. We leave out or blank out those portions of Scriptures or parts of the sermons that we don’t want to hear. Why?
Because I’m afraid they challenge me and change my views and lifestyle! But, if we do not come to the Word of God for change or transformation, then, for what reason do we come to it? For information? Google should satisfy you with that quest, along with a lot of myths and lies.
When was the last time you put down your hands from covering your ears? When was the last time you yelled at God, telling Him you don’t want to listen to what He wanted to say to you? When was the last time you simply charged out and dud the horrible things that God was trying to warn you about?
I leave you with these three points of application to reflect and respond to the Voice of God – i.e. the Bible.
In Him we Love and Serve,
Rev Peter Chan
Your fellow servant