Stephen was the first Christian martyr (Acts 6:8–7:60). Because of His boldness in preaching Jesus Christ, the religious leaders at Jerusalem had a problem. As a deacon, Stephen was a servant within the church, but he was also a capable public preacher. His Greek name suggests he was a Hellenistic Jew. His story is exemplary of how the church can do many good deeds in the world, but as soon as the preaching begins, so does the resistance to the Gospel truth.
Stephen was “full of grace and power (Acts 6:8).” He was a Spirit-filled believer in Jesus like the apostles, his contemporaries, and he was endued beyond banausic tasks. He was performing “wonders and great signs among the people (Acts 6:8).”
The sins of the religious Jews were jealousy, envy, and greed. Judaism had developed a merit system, and everyone with religious leadership ambitions was subject to climbing the proverbial ladder of works. When they killed Jesus, they anticipated His followers would deliquesce into obscurity. The opposite was occurring, and they were growing impatient with those who were members of the Way.
With the Spirit indwelling them, the early church preachers were unlike anything anyone in the world of religious rhetoric had seen before. There was not just one prophet here or there, but the Spirit was filling every believer and amazing things were happening at the hands of the Nazarene’s followers. These were the sign gifts that helped the early church know its own and also to validate the Word of God being preached to the people.
As the Spirit-filled church grew out from Jerusalem and permeated the world, the sign gifts dissipated. The sign gifts were easily abused by charlatans who did their magic tricks and claimed it was the power of God. Simon the Magician was a classic case of a man motivated to put on a show for the people and profit from it. He was even willing to buy the power that was being displayed by the true believers.
Those who opposed Stephen were recorded by Luke as being from a particular synagogue, which is identified by a North African and a North Mediterranean group of Hellenistic Jews (Acts 6:9). We speculate that Stephen was familiar with these Jews from outside the land of Israel. They may have been one of the first audiences to hear him and the novel ideas. The unifying element for this diverse gathering of objectors was that they were Freedmen.
The Spirit of Christ, who is the wisdom of God and power of God (1 Cor 1:24), was granting Stephen such prowess, as to perform great apologetics. Apologetics is the art of defending the Christian faith in public debate. Preaching produces questions. Questions demand answers. Debate ensues.
Bamboozled by the doctrines Stephen brought, these Jews turned to treachery. They “secretly induced men to say” false things about Stephen’s message. In other words, they tattled on him to the religious authorities, and they needed some contrived material to work against him.
The Spirit-filled preacher does not often produce immediate Spirit-filled listeners. This is especially true for the preaching event. Conversion (repentance and faith given as a gift of the Spirit) follows the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit (Jn 3:1–8; Eph 2:5; Col 2:13; 1 Pet 1:3). In other words, the hearers of the Gospel-preached must be baptized by the Holy Spirit (Mt 3:11; Jn 1:33; Acts 2:38; 10:47), in order for their being transferred out of the domain of darkness and the dominion of Satan, who blinds their minds from receiving the Gospel (Acts 26:18; Col 1:13; 2 Cor 4:4). Simply put, the Spirit had not opened these Freedmen’s hearts to believe the Gospel message.
The serious nature of the accusations is seen by the fact that Stephen was dragged before the Sanhedrin, which was the Supreme Court of Israel, comprised of 72 religious and political leaders primarily from the sects of the Pharisees and Sadducees. The elders, scribes, and the people served as the prosecutors and witnesses (Acts 6:11–12). The group forming against Stephen was growing larger. Group think was setting in, and the accusations were multiplying.
Surely, Stephen was not speaking against the Law nor the Temple (Acts 6:13). The charge that things were changing because of Jesus the Nazarene was a half-truth (Acts 6:14). Every preacher notes how mingled some people regurgitate the Word preached to them. This was malicious, however. The crowd wanted to destroy the preacher.
It was fortuitous that the high priest asked the question of Stephen, upon hearing the charges, “Are these things so (Acts 7:1)?” In this way, Stephen was permitted to answer the question and his accusers at the same time. Our interest here is not Stephen’s defense (Acts 7:2–53), but there are some things to learn from Stephen’s experience.
First, it is imperative for every true preacher of the Gospel to frame his preaching in its right context. Unregenerate people are at enmity with God. They are haters of God (Rom 1:30) and haters of Jesus Christ (Jn 7:7; 15:18–19, 24–25); therefore, followers of Jesus who preach the Gospel of Jesus are likewise despised by sinners.
Second, children of the devil are liars like their father, the devil (Jn 8:44; 1 Jn 3:10). They will think nothing of bearing false witness against the man of God.
Third, hostility intensifies as groups of Gospel haters increase in size and with the number of accusations. Sinners applaud the despicable actions of their demon-inspired activist leaders.
Fourth, some people will dispute the Gospel message because they do not understand. Others only wish to malign the Gospel messenger and see that he is disposed.
Finally, the Bible promises that Christ’s followers will be provided with opportunities to stand before kings and councils, in order for the Gospel to permeate every place. Stephen was bold in his preaching, and he remained bold before those who were positioned to judge him.
There is no greater joy for a called preacher of the Gospel than to stand before others and proclaim the excellencies of Christ (1 Pet 2:9). Every Gospel preacher must be ready to give a defense. With confidence, brought by the indwelling Spirit, the preacher will beam with the light of Christ, even as Stephen’s face appeared to be that of an angel, before the scowls of Christ’s enemies.
May God grant the same boldness to stand firm when those who bear false witness against the man of God are made to hear the Gospel of truth, one more time, before they perform their dirty deeds of removing the Gospel presence from their own presence. Men of God are called to bring heat and light through their preaching, and their flame may burn long and steady for years, or they may flare for a moment. Either way, God is glorified and blessed are you when they persecute you and say all kinds of evil against you for Christ’s sake. Count it all joy.
Spokane Valley, Washington
June 7, 2021