As the reader approaches the sixth chapter of Acts the story begins to change direction. The focus slowly but surely shifts from Peter as the central apostle to Paul. The reason for this has nothing to do with Paul but everything to do with Jesus Christ and His redemption of all of those for whom He died—including the Gentiles.
At this point in Luke’s history the global mission begins to dominate. Stott helpfully observes that “in the next six chapters of the Acts, Luke explains how the foundations of the Gentile mission were laid by two remarkable men (Stephen the martyr and Philip the evangelist), followed by two remarkable conversions (Saul the Pharisee and Cornelius the centurion). These four men, each in his own way, together with Peter, through whose ministry Cornelius was converted, made an indispensable contribution to the global expansion of the church.”1
One thing that stands out with reference to this is that Philip and Stephen were both chosen to be a part of “the Seven.” Thus, below the surface of this dispute with which Acts 6 opens, we see that ultimately it is about the Great Commission.
Acts 1:8 outlines the book of Acts and there is sufficient internal evidence to prove that Luke wrote this historical treatise for the purpose of recording how the gospel moved from Jerusalem to Judea, to Samaria and to the uttermost parts of the earth—all, by the way, within one generation (see Colossians 1:6, 23). And in Acts 6, we learn that a man named Stephen played a pivotal role in this worldwide evangelisation.
In Acts 6 we read of the Hellenists: Greek speaking and to some degree, Greek culture-influenced Hebrews. As we saw, some felt that the Hellenised widows were being neglected in the practical ministry of the local church there in Jerusalem. In response to this charge of ethnocentrism the apostles called upon the church to select seven men of “honest report, full of the Holy Spirit and of wisdom” to see to this matter. In a remarkable display of cross-cultural harmony, the church evidently selected “the Seven” from the Hellenistic faction! (This appears to be the case since all seven had Greek names.) The result was that the church began to expand. But apparently it was not expanding enough. It would seem, from what follows, that the church would need an impetus to thrust it outside of its cultural comfort zone. Thus, enter Stephen before the slanderous and murderous Sanhedrin.
In the passage before us we have the record of a man who really got it. Stephen understood that the gospel, though rooted in the Jewish nation, was not exclusively for the Jews. And we know this from the sermon that he preached as recorded in 7:1-53.
In that message Stephen pointed to the sovereign grace of God and how the Jews for the most part had rejected it, even to the point of crucifying the Sovereign’s Son. This message was a real skandalon to these ethnocentric leaders—especially since it was being delivered by a “sub-Jew,” that is, a Hellenised one. “How dare this Greek-influenced Jew instruct us from our Scriptures?” The answer, of course, is that he was faithful to the Scriptures. The gospel was for all the nations (beginning with an Iraqi by the name of Abraham!) and he knew this. As Arno Gaebelein notes, “With Stephen we reach an important stage in this book. The testimony, as given to Israel, is now soon to be closed and Stephen is the instrument chosen to deliver the most striking testimony to the representatives of the nation.”2
With Stephen’s subsequent martyrdom, two major results came about, which would influence church history up until this very day.
First, Saul of Tarsus came on the revealed page as the Spirit of God used Stephen to plant the gospel seed in his otherwise pharisaic and hardened heart. Of course, Saul of Tarsus became the Paul the apostle, who was God’s chosen vessel to carry the gospel to the Gentiles; that is, to carry the gospel to the uttermost parts of the earth. The church would go global through this man.
Second, the church in Jerusalem, in historical irony and as a consequence of Stephen’s martyrdom and Saul’s murderous response to the conviction of the Holy Spirit, would be thrust out to the uttermost parts of the earth. As Acts 8 and 11 records, the martyrdom of this Hellenised deacon resulted in the planting of a cross-cultural church in Antioch, which in turn sent out the first missionaries in church history, with one of those missionaries being the man who had been largely responsible for the martyrdom of the man who made this all possible!
It is for this reason that the account of Stephen in Acts 6 and 7 is of such paramount importance. This exemplary servant of God was used to get the gospel to you and me. Think about that!
Stephen was thus a pivotal part of God’s plan. And as someone has noted with reference to his abbreviated ministry, “He was proof that the impact of a man’s life and ministry has nothing necessarily to do with length. His ministry, though brief, was essential to God’s plan for world evangelism. He showed that the efforts of one courageous person, though of short duration, can have far-reaching effects.”3
It has been noted that “the death of this faithful man is recorded more fully than the death of anyone else in the New Testament except that of our Lord Jesus Christ”4 and I trust that we have begun to see that this is so with good reason. You see, the martyrdom of Stephen was good for him, for Saul, for the church and for the glory of God.
In this study we will consider the closing eight verses of chapter six under the banner, “An Exemplary Servant.” Indeed, that is what Stephen was. Though you and I will probably never be martyred, and though we will probably never play as pivotal a role in the history of the church as Stephen did, we can live such exemplary lives serving our Saviour. I trust that we will be challenged by the testimony of this exemplary servant of God.
There is no doubt that, while there is a lot that we do not know about Stephen, we can say based on the evidence before us that he was truly one of the greatest believers in the history of the church. His name means, “crown” (as in “victory”). He truly was a “victorious” Christian. May we emulate his example!
We covered the record of Stephen’s calling in vv. 1-7 in a previous study, but it is important to review some of what we saw there. Luke writes,
Now in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplying, there arose a complaint against the Hebrews by the Hellenists, because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution. Then the twelve summoned the multitude of the disciples and said, “It is not desirable that we should leave the word of God and serve tables. Therefore, brethren, seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business; but we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” And the saying pleased the whole multitude. And they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas, a proselyte from Antioch, whom they set before the apostles; and when they had prayed, they laid hands on them. Then the word of God spread, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith.
Stephen, the exemplary servant before us, was first a servant before he was exemplary. He was called to serve because he was an example before the church back then, and his example as a servant is why he is an example to us today.
The Jerusalem church realised that there was a need for someone to “serve tables” (v. 2). The word “serve” is a translation of the Greek word diakonia, from which we derive our English word “deacon.” It was noted in our previous study that the Seven formed a prototype diaconate. And it was these seven men who were appointed over “this business” (v. 3). The word “business” speaks of “a need” or “a necessity,” and carries with it the matter of service.
Stephen was willing to serve even in the more mundane areas of church life. He saw this as God’s calling in his life, as confirmed by the call of the Body and confirmed by its appointed leadership.
While it can be argued that Stephen was a deacon, and that his ministry was therefore very deliberately one of service, we should at the same time note that every believer is called to serve (Romans 12:1-8; 1 Corinthians 12:1-11).
And as we shall soon see, how we serve often determines how else we serve. That is, the one who is faithful in that which is least is often being prepared to be faithful in that which is much.
We also read something in our text of Stephen’s character. He was “a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit” (v. 5), “full of faith [or, more correctly, “grace”] and power,” who “did great wonders and signs among the people” (v. 8). It was fundamentally the character of Stephen that paved the way for him to be qualified to serve the Body, and it was this same character that made him exemplary as a servant.
To be an effective, God-honouring servant, godly character is necessary. If we will effectively serve the Lord then we need the kind of character that marked Stephen. The terms used to describe Stephen’s character, says Robertson, “give a picture of remarkable attractiveness.”5
He Was Faithful
Stephen was a man who was “full of faith” (v. 5). The term “full of” speaks of an overflowing container. Its picture is that of being so consumed with something that you are controlled by it. Stephen believed and obeyed God because his confidence was in God. This was evident to others, and his sermon in chapter seven proved it.
A man who truly trusts God can be trusted by others. True ministry—true service to God—comes from overflow. Those who serve need to be sure that they continue to serve God. Beware the danger of being dependable while failing to be dependant.
He Was Spiritual
Not only was Stephen “full of faith,” but he was also full of “the Holy Spirit” (v. 5). To be full of the Spirit is to live a Christ-centred life (John 14—16). This is manifested by declaration of Christ (see for example Acts 2; Ephesians 5:19) and the disposition of Christ (Galatians 5:23-24; Ephesians 5:19-20). Any believer can be filled with the Spirit and every believer is to be!
To be an exemplary servant does not require great deeds as much as it requires great devotion. And this gift is available to every believer who will accept it. Obey the commandment to “be filled with the Spirit” and you will serve (see Ephesians 5:21—6:9).
He Was Graceful
As already noted, though the NKJV tells us again in v. 8 that Stephen was “full of faith,” the more correct translation in this instance is probably “full of grace.”
The word can mean “gracious.” Stephen had spiritual charm, a certain winsomeness6 as he served others and by serving others. Such is a mark of an exemplary servant.
Paul exhorted Timothy in much the same vein. “But avoid foolish and ignorant disputes, knowing that they generate strife. And a servant of the Lord must not quarrel but be gentle to all, able to teach, patient, in humility correcting those who are in opposition, if God perhaps will grant them repentance, so that they may know the truth” (2 Timothy 2:23-25).
The Lord Jesus is our ultimate example of a servant who does not quarrel or generate strife (see Matthew 12:19; John 1:14). And yet note that being gracious does not guarantee a conflict-free ministry. Again, Jesus is our example.
To be gracious is not to be weak. Grace is pure and can therefore stir up guilt. This is precisely what the gospel does.
He Was Powerful
Stephen was also “full of . . . power” (v. 8). The word translated “power” is the Greek word dunamis, which means “divine power expressed in mighty works.”7 Stephen was used in a mighty way—as if he were an apostle.
It is interesting to note that, outside of the apostles, the only other men in the New Testament who were used of God to perform miracles were Stephen, Philip and Barnabas. All three were Hellenists. Without in any way minimising the unique and authoritative ministry of the apostles, it is as if the Lord was graciously equipping these men for the purpose of putting His stamp of approval upon their ministry and those to whom they were ministering cross–culturally.
It should be noted that the ability to perform “wonders and signs” was not a widespread gift in the early new covenant church, and certainly not one that we should not expect to see in practice today. Yet we can learn from this that the when a servant of the Lord is faithful, spiritual, and graceful that he can also expect to be powerful in his service for the Lord. Such an exemplary servant will be effective in strengthening the church. Such a servant will be fruitful. Everett Harrison says it well: “The general description of Stephen resembles that of Jesus in Luke 24:19. His faith (v. 5) enabled him to lay hold of divine grace, which in turn released the power of God in the performance of mighty deeds.”8
If you want to be effective don’t make effectiveness your goal. Rather make Christ your goal and therefore be faithful to Him, spiritual for Him and graceful like Him. The result will be unique ways in which God will make you powerful in Him.
I recently met a brother at a pastors’ training seminar that I was conducting with a friend. This man, who, like Stephen, is faithful, spiritual and graceful, pastors a church in another part of our country. This particular area is a hijacking hotspot in South Africa. We were conducting the seminar at the church building where this pastor’s church gathers for worship. It is a massive structure, which was once a Dutch Reformed Church. I asked him to give me the background to how the church got the property. The story was fascinating.
Someone had told him that the building would be up for auction, and so on the appointed day he gathered at the building with a group of other pastors who were also interested in purchasing the property. As he discussed the auction with the other pastors, he soon grew somewhat discouraged as he realised that he did not have nearly as much money as most of the others to offer. While the other pastors were talking of placing a deposit in the region of R300,000 he had a paltry R3,000 to offer. He actually left the meeting in discouragement.
He turned to the Lord in prayer, expressing his desires. His church gathered in that very area, while some of the other pastors came from a greater distance. His church certainly needed a building, and this seemed to be a perfect opportunity. He could not understand why the Lord would not give it to them.
Later that week, another meeting was held by the auctioneers, and someone encouraged him to go back. He and his wife attended that meeting, and when the auctioneers asked each interested party to write down the amount of deposit they had and the interest they were willing to pay he did so. His wife whispered to him, “How much did you write down?” He replied, “Three hundred thousand.” When she asked him with some incredulity where he intended to get that kind of money, he smiled and said, “I’ll tell you later.”
The auctioneers called him later to inform him that they had accepted his bid. In order to lay down the necessary deposit, he resigned from his job (he was a tent-making pastor at the time), cashed in his pension and used the money to lay down the deposit for the building. He encouraged his wife that God would provide for them.
The Lord has faithfully provided for this pastor and his family over the years. In fact, when I was there he told me that, just the previous week, a group of Muslims had offered him R8m for the property, and he was able to refuse the offer.
He was faithful, spiritual and graceful, and by God’s grace he was also fruitful and powerful. There are still stephens in our midst today!
Having looked at the character of this exemplary servant, we must now ask what his example produced. It might surprise us that it conflict for it was precisely “during Stephen’s career of grace and power the attack was made.”9 With reference to this, Stott notes, “Yet in spite of all Stephen’s outstanding qualities, his ministry provoked fierce antagonism.”10
It is precisely in the context of conflict that one’s character is manifested. We ought not to be disappointed with what we observe with reference to Stephen.
In vv. 9-14 we have the record of the conflict to which Stephen’s character and therefore his commitment led him.
Then there arose some from what is called the Synagogue of the Freedmen (Cyrenians, Alexandrians, and those from Cilicia and Asia), disputing with Stephen. And they were not able to resist the wisdom and the Spirit by which he spoke. Then they secretly induced men to say, “We have heard him speak blasphemous words against Moses and God.” And they stirred up the people, the elders, and the scribes; and they came upon him, seized him, and brought him to the council. They also set up false witnesses who said, “This man does not cease to speak blasphemous words against this holy place and the law; for we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs which Moses delivered to us.”
Because he was a man of Christ-centred character and Christ-driven commitment, conflict was inevitable. Again, it was in such conflict that we see more of his character in action as he remained committed to Christ and His church.
Stephen, a Hellenised Jew, was a member of one of the Hellenised synagogues. (Some say that there were 480 synagogues in Jerusalem at the time!) The “Synagogue of the Freedmen” was one comprising those who were at one time slaves (probably in Rome) and who had gained their freedom and now were residing in Jerusalem. We are not quite certain from the text whether there was only one synagogue involved here or multiple synagogues.
Since Paul was from Tarsus in Cilicia it is very likely that he was at this synagogue and was therefore exposed to Stephen’s ministry. “It is almost certain that Saul encountered Stephen in the synagogue, and that meeting affected both his own life and the history of the world.”11
Stephen had access to this synagogue and he faithfully preached Christ there. Because he was faithful he was fearless. He effectively, powerfully and convincingly proclaimed the truth of God’s Word. But rather than conversions, there was consternation. “‘Argued’ is from suzeteo, which refers not to a quarrel but to a formal debate. . . . The debate no doubt centered on the death, resurrection, and messiahship of Jesus, and the inability of the Mosaic law and temple ritual to save.”12
The synagogue worshipers could not refute the truth of Stephen’s claims but they also refused to submit to them. This resulted in intrigue (v. 11). They “secretly induced men to say” certain things about Stephen. The phrase “is from hupoballo and means ‘to suggest or prompt’ with an evil motive.”12 Robertson says that the phrase “secretly induced” means “to bring men under one’s control by suggestion or by money.”14
These false charges were deliberately emotive accusations intended to turn the Jewish population against, not only Stephen, but also the entire church as well. In the words of one commentator, “this charge is evidently intended to represent Stephen as a man whose sentiments and conduct are all controlled by an active, enduring, irreverent and fanatical hostility to all that is holy and divine in the eyes of every devout Israelite.”15 Importantly, the same tactic was used against Jesus in Matthew 26:59-61.
Their scheme worked—both for them and (as we will soon see) for the glory of God!
Verse 12 introduces a new element into the history of the early church. It tells us that “the people” were now “stirred up.” “Stirred up” indicates that “they shook the people together like and earthquake” and speaks of “commotion.”16
In short, the false witnesses were able to disseminate the ominous rumour that Stephen—and the church that he represented—was disloyal to the Jewish way of worship and life, and this resulted in public opinion turning against both him and them.
This doubtless was a fabrication of otherwise truthful teaching that Stephen had declared with reference to Jesus, the true temple and the purpose of the law. “Undoubtedly Stephen spoke regarding a recasting of Jewish life in terms of the supremacy of Jesus the Messiah.”17
Stephen was simply expounding what Jesus revealed. “What Jesus taught, then, was that the temple and the law would be superseded, meaning not that they had never been divine gifts in the first place, but that they would find their God-intended fulfilment in him, the Messiah. Jesus was and is himself the replacement of the temple and the fulfilment of the law. Moreover, to affirm that both temple and law pointed forward to him and are now fulfilled in him is to magnify their importance, not to denigrate it.”18
Stephen no doubt was teaching the same thing. He was honouring the old covenant, but in their blindness they could not see it. He was therefore arrested and arraigned before the Sanhedrin, and this time there was no Gamaliel to rescue him (see Acts 5). He would be martyred and the world would be blessed by this!
Several characteristics emerge from this conflict, which highlight the commitment of this exemplary servant. Let us note a few of them.
One needs to consider why Stephen was willing to put himself in harm’s way by going to the synagogue(s) in the first place. I would suggest that it was because of his compassion for his fellow men. He knew the truth of the gospel and, like the Master whom he served, was moved with compassion for sheep without a shepherd. In fact this episode reveals how awful those shepherds were. They had crucified the Chief Shepherd!
Stephen was convinced that Jesus was the Christ and he would not—could not—be silent about it. He was convinced that Jesus was the Temple (John 2:19-23) and that He was the fulfilment of the law (Luke 24:25-27; 44; John 5:39, 46). He therefore was not hesitant to declare this gospel truth—even though he faced the threat of being misunderstood, ostracised and even murdered.
We have already seen that Stephen’s courage was manifested in his very public demonstration through declaration of his convictions. As we will see in his sermon before the Sanhedrin, his greatest fear object was not man but God. Such is a hallmark of an exemplary servant.
The text clearly reveals that Stephen was skilled in the ability to declare the truth of the gospel. In fact that is why his enemies turned to ad hominem arguments. As Stott observed, “When arguments fail, mud has often seemed an excellent substitute.”19
Stephen knew what he believed and why he believed it. He was competent to contend for the faith. If I can say it this way, he knew what he was talking about when it came to the gospel. He knew God’s covenant of grace and how this covenant under the older covenant was fulfilled in the new covenant. And I would make the appeal that the church of our day needs such competence. Of course, as I have personally experienced, such competence will usher in conflict—even from the church in our day.
It is of great interest to me that these same issues—the temple and the law—are still flashpoints for many in Christendom today. There are those who strongly argue that the temple must, according to biblical prophecy, be built again in the future; and there are those who do not see this taught in Scripture. There are those who believe that the law has completely passed with the ministry of Christ, that He came to abolish everything Old Testament. And there are those who see a covenantal continuity between the two Testaments.
Exemplary servants cannot ignore these disputes. Exemplary servants are students of the Word.
As the conflict erupted Stephen did not. There was no need for him to do so because he was on the side of truth. And God was on his side. Stephen’s countenance was evidence of this.
There is clearly an allusion here to an earlier event in which God’s spokesman was being dishonoured; namely, Moses. You will recall that the children of Israel disrespected Moses when they cried, “As for this Moses, we do not know what has become of him” (Exodus 32:1). The one who was mediating for them, the one appointed to reveal the truth of God to them, was the very one they rejected. But God vindicated Moses before them when He quite literally put some of His glory on him (Exodus 34:29-35).
The same seems to be the case here. The text clearly says that “all who sat in the council, looking steadfastly at him, saw his face as the face of an angel.” There was no doubt as to the heavenly stamp of approval on this servant of God.
Of course, of further interest is the parallel of Stephen’s countenance with Moses’—especially in the light of the false accusations brought against Stephen. They alleged that he had spoken blasphemous words against Moses and God. (Note their perverse sense of priority as they mentioned Moses before God!) Can you see the irony here? God’s sense of poetic justice was here displayed as He honoured Stephen with the same kind of countenance as the man whom he was supposedly dishonouring! “As if in refutation of the charge made against him, Stephen receives the same mark of divine favour which had been granted to Moses.”20
MacArthur captures the significance well as he says, “By putting His glory on Stephen’s face, God showed His approval of the New Covenant and its messenger.”21
As we bring this study to a close let us note that an exemplary servant will receive divine approval. Those who faithfully, spiritually, gracefully and powerfully serve the Lord will face conflict, which at times will seem unbearable. Yet in their hour of need they will be enabled to affirm the words of David who wrote, “Why are you cast down, O my soul? And why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God; for I shall yet praise Him, the help of my countenance and my God” (Psalm 42:11).
- John R. W. Stott, The Message of Acts: The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1990), 125. ↩
- Arno C. Gaebelein, The Acts of the Apostles: An Exposition (Neptune: Loizeaux Brothers, 1983), 122. ↩
- John F. MacArthur, Jr., Acts: The MacArthur New Testament Commentary, 2 vols. (Moody Press: Chicago, 1994), 1:188. ↩
- Donald S. Fortner, Life After Pentecost: A Guide to the Acts of the Apostles (Darlington: Evangelical Press, 1995), 91. ↩
- A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, 6 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1930), 3:75. ↩
- Richard N. Longnecker, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 12 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan 1981), 9:334. ↩
- Longnecker, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 9:334. ↩
- Everett F. Harrison, Interpreting Acts: The Expanding Church (Grand Rapids: Academie Books, 1986), 117. ↩
- R. J. Knowling, The Expositor’s Greek Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 2:173. ↩
- Stott, The Message of Acts, 126. ↩
- Charles R. Erdman, The Acts: An Exposition (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1966), 67. ↩
- MacArthur, Acts, 1:193. ↩
- MacArthur, Acts, 1:193. ↩
- Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, 3:76. ↩
- John Peter Lange, Acts: Lange’s Commentary on the Holy Scriptures (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, n.d.), 110. ↩
- Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, 3:77. ↩
- Longnecker, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, 9:336. ↩
- Stott, The Message of Acts, 129. ↩
- Stott, The Message of Acts, 127. ↩
- R. J. Knowling, The Expositor’s Greek Testament, 2:178. ↩
- MacArthur, Acts, 1:196. ↩