Acts 7 – By the Spirit We Are Courageous
What did you learn about the Holy Spirit?
- The Holy Spirit has been active among, and has been resisted by, God’s people since the beginning (7:51).
- The Holy Spirit filled Stephen at the climax of his persecution (7:55).
What did you learn about the Spirit-filled community?
- They experience the Holy Spirit in great persecution (7:55).
Notes from Pastor Mark
Last week we were introduced to Stephen, one of the first seven deacons, appointed by the apostles to wait tables in the growing congregation of Christ-followers. Stephen was the first in the list, something worth noticing since list-order in the New Testament often indicates priority in position or giftedness. Stephen is the only one in the list whose spiritual qualities are enumerated: “a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit.” Since every deacon was supposed to be a person who was “full of the Spirit and wisdom,” we can assume that Stephen was particularly anointed.
We discover that to be the case. Stephen’s humble service as a deacon provides opportunity for ministry and he is described as performing “great wonders and miraculous signs among the people.” As often happens when God uses someone in a significant way, some became jealous. They tried to argue with Stephen but he was too sharp for them. More to the point, he spoke under the anointing of the Holy Spirit. His opponents didn’t stand a chance.
So they began to slander him, accusing him of blasphemy against Moses and against God. They had him arrested and, like his Lord, produced false witnesses who perjured themselves against him, claiming that he was speaking against Moses, against the Temple… and presumably, against Temple leadership. Acts 6 closes with a very tense scene: Stephen stands before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish Supreme Court. Stephen is clearly on trial for his life… and yet, his face is described as “the face of an angel.”
In Matthew 10:19, Jesus predicted that His disciples would be arrested and put on trial for His sake. He said, “But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say.” Nowhere in Acts do we find this more powerfully evident than in the trial of Stephen. He who has been charged with blaspheming the Jewish faith and its fathers, proceeds to declare the whole story of God’s saving history, starting with Abraham. He walks them through the centuries of Jewish faith, telling them their own story. Oh, to have witnessed this. A single man facing the collective wrath and jealousy of the same religious powers that had killed his Master. Such courage!
Stephen weaves together the story of God’s salvation history…powerfully, clearly, even quoting long passages from the prophets. (Imagine… being able to do that under such circumstances!) But at verse 47, you sense him wheeling on his opponents. He points out that, with Solomon’s insistence on building a temple, the God whom no building could contain reluctantly agreed to the deal. But it was the start of a turn in the hearts of God’s people where the building and the rituals and the power-structures built around the Temple would replace a devotion to the God who prefers to meet His people in a fiery bush and a tent in the wilderness.
Then in verse 51, Stephen punches them right in the nose: 51“You stiff–necked people, with uncircumcised hearts and ears! You are just like your fathers: You always resist the Holy Spirit! 52Was there ever a prophet your fathers did not persecute? They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered him— 53you who have received the law that was put into effect through angels but have not obeyed it.”
Wow. What courage! His accusers are “furious” and “gnash their teeth” at him. (Can you picture it?) And then, when he speaks of his vision of Jesus standing at God’s right hand, they go apoplectic; they try to plug their ears…even as they run towards him to murder him. (Again, picture that scene.. .running toward him with hands over their ears!) And they kill him… illegally… mob-violence, for they were not allowed to execute anyone without Roman permission. (Remember Jesus before Pilate?) The final words of prayer we hear from this amazing, courageous man, are an echo of his Lord who had been murdered some two months earlier: “Lord Jesus, receive my Spirit.” (Father, into your hands I commit my Spirit,) and “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” (Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing!) And with that, Stephen, the first martyr of the Christian Church, was gone.
I do not know if I have the courage of Stephen. I suspect none of us do until we are in such a situation. But notice again that it is Stephen, “full of the Spirit,” who has the courage to speak against the leaders who “resist the Holy Spirit.” Pray that God would fill you with His Holy Spirit so that, in big things and small, you might have the courage to stand strong for Jesus.
P.S. (Notice the cameo appearance of a coat-holder named Saul. This won’t be the last you see of this guy!)