As we continue this morning in part six of our series A.D. we see the little flock growing. How many of you know that with growing there are always growing pains? That’s true, right? So we see great things happening in the early church, but not without failure, pain, suffering, or grieving. Yet Jesus promised and encouraged the church saying, "Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32). And in chapter after chapter we’ve seen the church empowered by the Holy Spirit; living, breathing, and acting out the final words of Jesus regardless of the cost (Acts 1:8). They were not those who would shrink back and be destroyed, but those who believed and were saved (Hebrews 10:39). They were looking forward to the Kingdom, the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God (Hebrews 11:10).
You see here’s what happened, Jesus promised, "I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me— just as the Father knows me and I know the Father — I lay down my life for the sheep” (John 10:14-15). And he did, Jesus laid down his life for his flock. They were surrounded and attacked, and Jesus was crucified. After his resurrection in Acts chapter 1, he commissioned his disciples to be shepherds, to care for the flock, and he ascended back to heaven.
So what we see here in the book of Acts is the disciples carrying out the Great Commission, as Christianity explodes, and lots of people are becoming the people of God. Thousands are being saved by Jesus, revival breaks out, and they receive the power of the Holy Spirit. They perpetuated the life of Jesus, they lived by the same power as Jesus; going out as his witnesses, and the church is succeeding. So the little flock is growing, the needs are growing, and suddenly there’s failure. The church faces persecution from the outside, opposition from the inside, there’s loss and there’s failure.
You know, so far the church in Jerusalem has been winning. They’ve been preaching, teaching, baptizing converts, and growing. But this week (I love the transparency of God’s Word) there’s failure and God doesn’t hide it. He just lays it all out there.
Let’s pick up the story in Acts chapter 6 at verse one: “In those days when the number of disciples was increasing, the Grecian Jews among them complained against the Hebraic Jews because their widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. 2 So the Twelve gathered all the disciples together and said, "It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. 3 Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them 4 and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word."
5 This proposal pleased the whole group. They chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit; also Philip, Procorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas from Antioch, a convert to Judaism. 6 They presented these men to the apostles, who prayed and laid their hands on them.
7 So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.
8 Now Stephen, a man full of God's grace and power, did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people. 9 Opposition arose, however, from members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called)-Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia. These men began to argue with Stephen, 10 but they could not stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by whom he spoke.
11 Then they secretly persuaded some men to say, "We have heard Stephen speak words of blasphemy against Moses and against God."
12 So they stirred up the people and the elders and the teachers of the law. They seized Stephen and brought him before the Sanhedrin. 13 They produced false witnesses, who testified, "This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place and against the law. 14 For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us."
15 All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.” NIV
In the first episodes of the A.D. series, the church has seen great success, but also its share of resistance. We have seen how the community’s leaders have been resistant to the name of Jesus. We saw with Ananias and Sapphira the tragedy of inauthentic Christianity. And now we see prejudice creeping in. Some widows were being overlooked in the daily distribution of food. This was a distinction between racial, ethnic, and cultural groups. In other words some of these widows were Hebrew conservatives and others were more liberal, the Hebrew progressives. You know it is like the Republicans and Democrats and Jesus loves them both. And Jesus wants us to love each other.
So the 12 apostles gathered all the other disciples together to address this issue. They were illustrating the admonition that Peter gave years later in his first letter to the church in Rome. He said, “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers…” (1 Peter 5:2). And I love that, because Jesus and his followers are always concerned with the oversight of others, thinking of others first and specifically, the women, the children, the lame, and the impoverished. Those were considered the underdogs of their culture.
Time and time again throughout the Gospels you find references to the women and widows; even on the cross Jesus was concerned for his mother and while hanging there in anguish he entrusted her to the Apostle John for her care (John 19:26-27). And so as we celebrate Mother’s Day today, it’s no wonder that it is the third most celebrated holiday in the whole world. First as Christmas, second is Easter, and third is Mother’s Day; which really makes sense, because you’ve got the birth of Jesus, the resurrection of Jesus, and mom right up there together just as it should be.
You see, I know for moms it’s really easy to get discouraged, to feel overwhelmed with your responsibilities, and to feel underappreciated. So I really appreciate mothers and the concern in the Scriptures for the widows in the church. There is an old proverb that says, “An ounce of mother is worth a pound of clergy.” Mothers are of great value and so what was happening here in the church was not fair. The more traditional widows were getting first-class treatment and the liberal more progressive widows were getting second-class or no-class treatment. And so there’s a complaint.
This complaint, brought to the apostles, brings about the choosing of deacons who would help shepherd the flock and ease the growing pains. Seven were chosen, but one named Stephen stood out and becomes the focus of this chapter and the next. Verse eight introduces us… “Stephen, a man full of God's grace and power, did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people.” And so not surprisingly, “Opposition arose…” just as the apostle Paul warned, “Savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock” (Acts 20:28-29). Opposition increased, but the Church is a safe harbor; Jesus called it a pen of protection (John 10:16) and the apostles recognized the need for more shepherds.
So we see Stephen stepping up; he’s just a normal guy until God gets a hold of him and the Holy Spirit fills him. And now Stephen allows the Holy Spirit to work through him in a supernatural way. The person, the presence, and the power of the Living God performs great wonders and signs through him and people’s needs are being met, the Bible is being taught, but no sooner do they get this complaint of the widows corrected… there is more trouble.
It is just as Jesus warned. "Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves” (Matthew 7:15). So these wolves come in, “members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called)-Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia. These men began to argue with Stephen” (Acts 6:9). This is what happens and it is not just this church, but every church that loves Jesus and believes the Bible… the wolves creep in.
So they come and they try to discredit Stephen. They bring charges against him that don’t hold up (Acts 6:11-13). They argue with him, but he holds his ground, because he is filled with the Holy Spirit and he speaks words of God. So then they turned to false witnesses and false charges, they make things up, and they twist his words. Yet like Jesus, Stephen maintains his integrity and it says, “They saw that his face was like the face of an angel” (Acts 6:15).
Isn’t that awesome? A peace came over Stephen, he didn’t get angry or defensive, but when the time came for him to speak he was prepared and ready. It was just as the Bible tells us, “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1 Peter 3:15). In other words… you never know when the time will come so be prepared. Stephen was ready and when the moment comes he respectfully walks them through the Old Testament pointing them to the person of Jesus Christ.
You see, he knew their problem was that they knew the Bible, but they didn’t know Jesus. Jesus said that he came to fulfill all Scripture (Matthew 5:17), that the Scripture was all about him (John 5:38-39), and after the resurrection, He met with two disciples, “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luke 24:27). So what Stephen does is he takes the Bible that they know and points them to the Jesus that they don’t know.
And in chapter 7, he starts with Abraham, whom they would’ve called their Father and he teaches them about the one who was the son of Abraham. Now for the sake of time I’m going to summarize this, but Stephen moves from Abraham, to Joseph, to Moses. And He tells them the Exodus is about Jesus, David is about Jesus, Solomon is about Jesus, the temple is about Jesus, the priesthood is about Jesus, the Kingdom is about Jesus. And so in summary, it’s all about Jesus.
The Bible tells us in Acts 7:54-60: “When they heard this, they were furious and gnashed their teeth at him. 55 But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up to heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 "Look," he said, "I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God."
57 At this they covered their ears and, yelling at the top of their voices, they all rushed at him, 58 dragged him out of the city and began to stone him. Meanwhile, the witnesses laid their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul.
59 While they were stoning him, Stephen prayed, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." 60 Then he fell on his knees and cried out, "Lord, do not hold this sin against them." When he had said this, he fell asleep.” NIV
He fell asleep simply means a believer’s death. As Jesus said, "He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25-26). So when a believer dies, they fall asleep, their body lays in the ground until the resurrection of the dead. Their body experiences physical death, but the soul enters spiritual life, face-to-face with Jesus, and one day that dead body will catch up and rise to be with Jesus also (1 Thessalonians 4:13-18). And so here we see Stephen teaching about Jesus and praying that people would meet Jesus and who shows up but the Jesus himself. So Stephen prays, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” as he sees Jesus in glory.
I think we can learn a lot from the example of Stephen, because so often we don’t look up until it really hurts, it’s really hopeless, and we’re at the end of our rope. We’re just too busy trying to look good for others, or we’re trying to fix things ourselves, and meanwhile we’re suffering instead of looking up to glory. You see, Stephen looks up, sees Jesus in glory and calls him the “Son of Man.” Now it’s easy to skim right over that, but this is the same name used in the book of Daniel, the same name used by the prophet Isaiah, and it’s the same name used in Revelation by the Apostle John. Stephen saw Jesus as he is today, the Son of Man, the God man, riding on the clouds of heaven. Stephen saw Jesus in glory, he saw him on his throne being worshiped by angels, and he knew that Jesus is alive, that Jesus is both Lord and God, that Jesus is ruling and reigning in glory where he sees, knows, and judges all perfectly. And so Stephen refers to Jesus as the Son of Man, because he saw him like no one has seen him… he saw him in glory. Stephen looks up and sees Jesus standing just as a witness would stand and testify in court; Jesus stands to honor Stephen and to serve as a witness to His word.
Today, some of you have suffered or are suffering and you need to know that Jesus wants you to see him in a way that no one else sees him. You need to know that Jesus is not only our judge but he’s also our witness. You see, he sees and knows all. He sees what you and I have done and he sees what others have done to us. And He is both our witness and our judge. And as our judge he died in our place for our sins, was raised from the dead, and sat down at the right hand of the Father. So, right here in Acts chapter 7, Jesus got up off his throne where he was seated with the Father, he looked down at Stephen, he witnessed the injustice, he witnessed his testimony, and he welcome him home. His arms are out and as Stephen closed his eyes in death, he opened them to see Jesus face to face, to feel his breathe, his loving embrace, and to hear, “Well done, good and faithful servant! …Come and share your master's happiness!” (Matthew 25:23).
Unfortunately, sometimes in this world there is suffering before there is glory. And we never want to go through the pain, the grief, and the loss, but the only way to the other side of it, is through it. Just like Stephen did and just like Jesus did. And the Bible records in Psalms as well as Lamentations the cries of people going through it. The Lord Jesus was one like us, who is familiar with suffering; He wept over Jerusalem, he shed his tears for his friend Lazarus, he was in travail in the Garden of Gethsemane, he cried out on the cross. He was honest but humble, submissive yet truthful, because it was all so very painful. And we need to understand that it’s an act of faith to cry out to God in those moments just as Stephen did. It’s a purifying thing for the soul to mourn and grieve.
The Bible says, “We do not grieve as ones who do not have hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13). We know that the Lord Jesus rose from death and we too will rise from death. We know that he sees and knows all, that justice is coming, and though we may suffer, we don’t grieve as those who don’t have any hope. We fix our eyes on Jesus who gave his life for the sheep and who from the cross prayed, “Father, forgive them,” just like Stephen prayed. We look to him whom we will stand face-to-face, who answered his own prayer, who died for our sins and forgave us. We look to our Good Shepherd to see him as Stephen saw him in glory, standing up for us, and waiting to welcome us.
Pastor John Talcott
Christ's Community Church
303 West Lincoln Avenue
Emmitsburg, MD 21727
January 04, 2015