23rd October 2011
Sunday morning worship
An ordinary Christian.
As Christians we often hide our poor Christian life and effort behind the reputation of some whom we might believe to be Super-Christians. The Apostle Paul is one such character, who can ever match up to what he was. There is much truth in that but we need to keep a balance also. Remember it was Paul who wrote Romans 7:15-20:
I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.
Paul also elsewhere refers to himself as the least worthy and chief of sinners. Paul was under no illusion that he was better than the rest. All of his achievements he attributed to his Lord. All of his authority and understanding came from the Lord and all of his resolve was of the Lord.
It is right to get this into context before we consider Stephen another of the church’s super-heroes. Before the mention of his name for the first time in Acts 6:5 to the reader of the New Testament Stephen was an unknown quantity. He was chosen by the church because he had the required qualities for the role of servant of the church. If you remember the qualifications laid down for the choosing of these 7 men who were to care for the widows of the church was that they be full of faith and the Holy Spirit. That is a description of all believers! Remember since our repentance and conversion we are a new creation, gone are the old ways. Our sin has been replaced with righteousness given by God and the gods of our former life (Satan and self) who solely occupied our very heart have been replaced by God Almighty through His Holy Spirit. Therefore these are the credentials of all who are born again of God. The church then had the responsibility to choose 7 men who were exemplary in their faith. We can of course see quite clearly that some people are in closer relationship with God than others are and so the shortlist for the 7 was made smaller. But then the job at hand needed to be done and so those suitably equipped would be shortlisted further just as we do when interviewing for any specific job. The job at hand was quite specific, it was all about caring for people in difficulties and so Stephen was by reputation chosen because he was good at such things. The church had to make pragmatic decisions for a spiritual work. That was the work of the church membership. But what of the man himself and what was it that the church recognised in him?
He was obvious.
He was powerful.
He was obvious.
The very fact that it was obvious to all should never go without saying. The greatest testimony that can ever be made is that of other people. There are so many autobiographies written these days that tell of the wonderful things that “I” have done. They often tell it warts and all but it is always with a bias that will only disclose truth and error as far as they want to. But when somebody else speaks of us if they are truthful they can only record the reality of what can be observed. Luke in his research for this book records that Stephen was a man full of God’s grace and power. What he saying by this is; Stephen was a most impressive Christian. He did not gain favour by being relevant or trendy or even by having the right theology. It was not his character that set him apart although I am sure that it was impressive in itself; after all the Greek believers trusted him with the welfare of their widows. These are the attributes that we generally look for in people fit for service, it is not wrong to do that but there are higher qualities that are even more important. A note of caution here is necessary Stephen was not so High minded that he had no earthly use. He was clearly respected for his human values but he was also a Godly man of the first order.
He was Full of God’s grace, he had many of his own graces but to be full of God’s grace is truly both impressive and important. It was impressive because others saw it in him. It was not just the Greek believers that entrusted him with their widow’s welfare but the Jewish believers did also. That in itself is amazing, both factions are pleased with all 7 appointed men including Stephen.
If ever there was a time when grace from God was necessary it was then. How does a church deal with such potentially explosive issues? The leaders needed great wisdom and Stephen was wise. They needed much grace to deal with the issues and God is who full of grace, it was He who had empowered Stephen for such a time as this!
As we have read Stephen was unfairly arrested, the members of the Synagogue of the Freedman (there is not much known about who these are but they are thought of consist largely of freed slaves) opposed the gospel and picked an argument with Stephen. His wisdom confounded them and the Spirit of God by whom he spoke defeated them publicly! As we all know a cornered rat is a dangerous animal it will attack violently. These Greek Jews did what they best could, they summoned up a group of liars and made false accusations against Stephen. It is oh so familiar! They gained support from the crowd and also the elders and the teachers of the law on trumped up charges of blasphemy which just happened to be the emotive subject of the day. These upright religious guys had no scruples about false witnesses. Their theology was that the end justifies the means. In other words it does not really matter how dubious or wrong your efforts are as long as it all turns out well for you. Sounds so modern doesn’t it!!! The charges of course soon get enlarged and from firstly being a charge of blasphemy it becomes a charge of constantly criticising the temple and the law and of making wild claims of Jesus destroying the temple. To cap it all they accused him of changing the customs of Moses. They in effect were claiming that Stephen was attacking the very core of society and culture.
As they sat in judgement they looked intently at Stephen! What did they see? They were clearly surprised at his calm; he was not shouting injustices or claiming his rights as we might. There is no evidence of his being downcast and hurt. He simply is there being observed. Earlier they could not stand against his wisdom which tells us that his claims were fair and with authority. Stephen was truly a man who was wise in difficult circumstances.
In this he is a great example to us today, we do not have to stand before kangaroo courts of theologians’ intent on destroying us but we do have a critical people out there who would love to destroy our witness. They will use all manner of unfairness to destroy our witness. Remember how not long ago a group of parents in the village made unfair claims about what we taught the children. We were reported as telling them that they were dirty rotten sinners. That was totally unfair but as with Stephen’s accusers it was based on the truth. What they accused Stephen of saying was true to a point. Christ and the church will destroy the old form of faith but not in the way that his accusers implied. We also must not shy away from truth, the bible tells us that all have sinned and that includes small children. Even King David admitted that he had been sinful since birth! We are expected to teach truth to old and young alike. We do teach universal sin to the children but it is never our place to apply the depths of their personal sin to them and neither do we! We of course to some are the most evil people because of the misrepresentation. What do we do about it?
We learn a lesson from Stephen! We must simply and accurately and without fear declare the truth as it is. We will see next time just how Stephen achieved that and what resulted from it!
A final lesson from Stephen:
He was powerful.
Remember that those sitting in judgement were looking intently at him! They saw much more than his wisdom. The saw his real power, Luke reports their understanding. Stephen to them had the face of an angel. At this point we have to get rid of all of our mythical understanding of what an angel is! We are about to enter a most dangerous time in the calendar when the whole country seems to go Christian mad! There will be cards coming through our doors with the most bizarre representations of what angels are. We will see little baby-like creatures with wings and blowing trumpets. This is a soppy and wrong interpretation of the reality! Whenever angels appear in the scripture they bring fear and trembling to their hearers, certainly if not at first they do before they depart from their subject. They often come with a sword to speak of their authority or with a trumpet to give a clarion call. For our information the trumpets if they ever were with the angels at the declaration of the birth of Jesus would have been to make the clarion call from God that battle has begun. The Lord had set His plan to go into battle against the devil: His warrior Jesus was now at war! That is the implications of the event. The angels came with a set purpose from God to declare His plan for them.
That is always the case with angels; they are warriors for the Lord with a message to the people from God! What the accusing of Stephen saw was certainly not a baby faced being! They saw wisdom and power from God! They also had a word from God to listen to, which is what angels do! They speak God’s word with power to those whom God has sent them. It is therefore no surprise that they then invite Stephen to speak. More of the message next time! But as we will discover they listen for 52 verses to Stephen’s interpretation of what their history is all about! In the end they choose to ignore it and to execute Stephen but they did listen. Why did they see Stephen to have a face like an angel? Because God had sent him to them with a message! Stephen at that point was an angel: a messenger of God. To a point we are all angels. Remember in the first few chapters of Revelation the Lord Jesus addresses the angel of various churches, if you study it a little you will find out He is speaking to the one with the message in the church. We are all messengers of God; called to declare the gospel message to all that we know. To them we are angels and our message has great authority. It might well be rejected but it comes with the full authority and power of God.
Stephen was an ordinary Christian just as we are but yet he was powerful when he declared his message. We are equally powerful when we declare the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. I wonder if our hearers ever notice the power that we have in the Lord.
They never will if we are never God’s angels to them! Ordinary Christians at times are angels to others; our message has great authority and power from God for them at that time.
We should pray for the opportunity to be an angel to somebody; they should in turn see us to be full of God’s grace and power. I wonder what you might say to the next person who unwittingly asks that you be an angel to them.