Today and next week we focus on Stephen, a man with an incredible story used by God in a most amazing way. This week what happened, next week Stephen’s threatening message. Many challenging lessons can be pulled from Stephen’s example, and chief among them: On what hill are you willing to die?
It is inspiring to watch Stephen face opposition and death with grace and gentleness: Acts 6:15 says, he had a “face like the face of an angel”…Stephen is my hero of faith showing me how to respond to tension and disagreements. If Stephen can face death with such grace, surely I ought to be able to face relatively minor criticisms and squabbles with humility. As Stephen is stoned to death, he thinks of his accuser above himself as he prays for the Lord to forgive them; then the Bible describes Stephen’s death with gentle and peaceful words, “he fell asleep” (READ Acts 7:60).
As we read through Acts everything is new for the Christian Church. The Church is birthed within the Jewish faith but soon breaks away from the traditions and the constraining shackles to take on a life of her own. Stephen shatters the bonds. The great desire is for the Jewish faith to be renewed ~ the entire purpose of Stephen’s speech is to wake up the traditionalists of the Jewish faith that he loves ~ but when many reject the living presence of Jesus as the Messiah offering hope and salvation, the church goes forward by the power of the Holy Spirit. Stephen is instrumental in refusing to compromise the Lordship of Christ even to the point of paying the ultimate price. Stephen is considered the first Christian martyr… Sidenote, I personally think John the Baptist is the first martyr!
Next week we’ll look at what Stephen said that tipped the religious leaders over the edge to stone him to death; today amazing lessons from his example of faith.
1. Be true to your [calling]. READ Acts 6:8. I am as guilty as anyone for over thinking the world… I admire Stephen for simply using his gifts that the Lord has given Him. I believe the Church today has an opportunity for a fresh start: The big C Church, and us little c church… May everything we do be to His glory. We do that by taking advantage of the opportunities and simply serving in His name… that’s all Stephen is doing. I don’t think he is greater than the next servant, we are all equally unequal, therefore all equally important…. Be true to your calling fulfilling your responsibilities in this world the Lord has given you, serving in His name, using your gifts and opportunities.
Be true to your calling. Live your faith. I don’t believe Stephen is looking for trouble, in fact one wonders why anyone would object to his ministry of “great wonders”, only God knows why unbelievers sometimes feel so threatened by confident people.
2. It’s perplexing: The most difficult opposition to the faith is often [internal].
The Synagogue of the Freedmen (Acts 8:9) probably named for its historical beginning… freedmen refers to former Jews that were slaves… it is likely at this point the synagogue is probably comprised largely of Greek speaking Jews from around the world. It is possible all of the Greek speaking Jews in Acts 6:5 might have been members of this synagogue, including Stephen himself… Even if he isn’t, he has a common background…. This is a dispute among people that have a lot in common!
The hardest disputes are internal. How many people in our world today are discouraged by church fights. I know disagreements are part of the deal, and I have spent a career doing my best to limit the minor issues…
3.Think through the [hill] you’re willing to die on? It may not be literal death, but how about leaving a church? Or distancing from friends. Making a life change? A divorce? I can’t be the judge of other people, background and history are part of the equation… it’s between them and God, but be careful about making a huge change for trivial reasons. I know multiple people in churches across this country that are disappointed in the stance their church has taken as we weather the Coronal Virus storm… the details of what is bothering them doesn’t even matter, if I try to explain I’d only cause division… but several are struggling with how to respond… Stephen takes his stand! He cannot and will not compromise the character and calling of Christ.
4. Seek [reconciliation] without compromising your convictions. Stephen’s opponents first try straight up reasoning with him, but it says, in Acts 6:9b-10 READ. This sounds like the modern day problem which I can’t stand in people not really listening to each other. Stephen Covey said, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand, they listen with the intent to reply.” May we learn to listen to one another. Ask real questions. Seek to understand. We don’t have any of the interchanges of The Freedmen with Stephen up to this point, but I absolutely believe Stephen sincerely wants to be understood and to understand his opponents…
The opponents lost the argument, so they turn to lying about Stephen… Our nation is in the final stretch of a political war called the presidential election. I don’t need a poll to know that most people can hardly wait until it is over because we get so tired of all the negative campaigning and have no idea who is telling the truth and who is lying, or even worse, too many of us think we know which one it is.... Most of us can hardly wait till it is over! There is nothing new under the sun: READ Acts 6:11-14. Change the details, and doesn’t that sound like modern politics! The thing is, as we’ll see next week, there is some truth to Acts 6:14, but the opponents of Stephen spin it in a way that is not true at all… Sure sounds modern to me….
5. In the face of opposition, stay focused on Christ. READ Acts 6:15. Don’t respond tit for tat, getting caught up in endless arguments. Is there ever a need to defend yourself? As we’ll see next week, Stephen’s response is not a defense ~ he simply affirms the message of Christ. His angelic face is matched by his words as he speaks the message of Christ. Confidence of faith comes when you at last understand that Jesus Christ must be the priority and purpose. Make it about Him always. That’s perspective… Stephen’s opponents could see the godliness…
6. When you stay focused on Christ, you may be surprised who [hears] you. Stephen thinks he is talking to his opponents as he “defends” Himself. But they aren’t listening... But a surprise person is listening… His name is Saul (later changed to Paul), who becomes a giant in the Christian faith, used by God to transform the world for Christ. READ Acts 7:57-58, 8:1a. Stephen’s firm convictions and the price he is willing to pay surely has a direct connection leading later to Paul’s conversion. ~~ I imagine as the cloaks are laid at Saul’s feet…he can never shake the testimony of Stephen who is willing to die…
I cannot image having such a great impact as Stephen, but isn’t it enough to impact even one person? You never know what words may fester in the heart of another as you testify of Christ in your life… We all know children are influenced for good or bad. Testify of Christ in your actions/your words… Stephen died and never knew the impact he had on Paul…As we keep reading Acts we discover Paul’s immediate response was to kill Christians, but Stephen’s words surely fester in his heart… if Stephen is heard by nobody else, what a legacy for the Christian Church and the Kingdom, to be used by God to influence Paul. You never know who is listening…
7. Be willing to [pay the price] of faithfulness to Jesus. Stephen is martyred. Most of us will not be asked to pay such a high price, but some will. Humbly and consistently testify of Christ in your life and you may lose friends, you may lose positions, you may be gossiped about, disagreements… Martyrdom… the religious leaders have been itching to kill somebody to try and stop the resurrection talk. Back at the end of Acts 5, they were all ready to kill Peter and John, but Gamaliel that stops them by saying if they are of God we can’t stop the message, but if not all the fuss will die out. The wisdom of G. could not be contained, and Stephen was the final straw. He knows death is a real possibility.
Martyrdom, dying for your faith, is a crazy thought. I’ve changed my mind about martyrdom over the decades. Back in the 70’s when I was a teenager, Spiritual Gifts took on a new emphasis… there were lots of spiritual gifts tests available to help discover your gifts, 100s of questions respond on a scale, then put answers in a grid and add up the totals to determine your gifts… a lot of the questions could be disguised, but not on martyrdom… I’d scratch my head at the occasional question about dying for my faith, the possibility seemed so remote…. Here is how I’ve changed my mind. I am not convinced that martyrdom is meant to be on the spiritual gift list at all… I think it is closer to the Fruit of the Spirit, a characteristic of the faith meant for all Christians. I looked up how martyrdom even got on the lists of spiritual gifts and the articles I found pointed to verses such as the beatitudes in Jesus’ sermon on the mount: “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad…” (Mt. 5:11) This is a truth for all, not just those with certain gifts. Stephen’s martyrdom is an example for all of us that challenge us to ask what price we are willing to pay for our faith. Most of us are not likely to be killed, but are you willing? What’s your hill? It’s a question of your level of maturity of faith, priorities, convictions…
I do not want to be an alarmist. I am not a prophet… but look at the world. The challenges to the Church and to people of faith may be getting harder and harder… We are compelled to prepare ourselves to stand firm when our faith is challenged, when the temptation is to abandon fundamental truth, when the pressure is to water down the full divine nature and living presence of Jesus Christ. Stand firm in Christ. There is no greater calling. No greater Lord. No greater purpose. You’ll never know how your testimony will impact others. When you stay focused on Christ, seeking truth and reconciliation, you will be blessed with the peace of Christ; you’ll be like an angel from heaven, testifying of the grace of the Lord. Amen!
What Hill are you Willing to Die on? Part 1
1. Be true to your ____________.
2. The most difficult opposition to the faith is often ______________
3. What ________ are you willing to die on?
4. Seek ____________ without compromising your convictions.
5. In the face of ____________, stay focused on Christ.
6. When you stay focused on Christ, you may be surprised who _________ you.
7. Be willing to ____________ of faithfulness to Jesus.