Even as the early church was growing in numbers, problems began to erupt amidst the believers.
The early church consisted primarily of Jews who could be classified broadly into:
1. Hebrews - Jewish Christians who were from Palestine and spoke mainly Aramaic and/or Hebrew
2. Hellenists - Jewish Christians who were from outside Palestine and spoke mainly Greek
It was only in the later stage of Acts that the Gentiles accepted Christ and were added to the church primarily due to the evangelist works done by Philip (in Samaria), Peter (in the house of Cornelius) and Paul (in his missionary journeys).
Now the early church had everything in common (4:32).
Acts 4:35 says that everything was distributed to everyone according to their need.
Problem arose in the early church since the Hellenists felt that their widows were neglected in the daily distribution. This issue was addressed to the apostles who wanted the disciples to choose 7 men to serve tables.
However, apostles had set certain eligibility criteria for the selection process:
The men to be chosen must be:
1. Of good reputation
2. Full of Holy Spirit
3. Full of wisdom
There is a huge difference between being filled with the Holy Spirit and being full of the Spirit.
Filled with the Spirit - At salvation, we experience the baptism of the Holy Spirit. When in worship, as the Holy Spirit moves, we are filled. Probably every born-again believer of the early church would have experienced it.
Full of the Spirit - being full of the Holy Spirit is different. It is reflected in the Godly character of a person and power with which they minister to God.
Now, seven such people were chosen. Acts 6:6 - the apostles laid hands on them. It was and is still a practice in many places to dedicate a person for a particular work by the elders laying hands on them. We have many such examples both in the Old and New Testament:
Deut 34:9; Numbers 27:12-33 - Moses laid hands on Joshua to anoint him as the next leader
Acts 13:3 - Apostles laid hands on Paul and Barnabas
(One needs to be very careful when laying hands on somebody and dedicating them for ministry. That is why, Paul warns Timothy - 1 Timothy 5:22)
The apostles here were also very careful that the men whom they dedicated were filled with Holy Spirit and wisdom.
Now, 7 men were selected. We are not told whether they were Greeks or Hebrews. However, their names are Greek names.
A spirit filled person is available to the Lord for whatever service he may appoint.
We must note that these 7 men filled with Spirit and wisdom were not called to preach but to wait on tables. A fact to be appreciated is that all of them were ready for that. However, Stephen tops the list - with detailed description about him - a man full of Holy Spirit and faith
Are we so available for the Lord for whatever work He may appoint? Are we ready to serve the Lord with all obedience and commitment?
How was Stephen available?
1. Available in Spirit
Acts 6:5 - he was full of the Holy Spirit
Acts 6:10 - And they were not able to resist the wisdom and the Spirit by which he spoke.
This is a testimony to him being full of the Spirit.
Acts 6:55 - But he, being full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.
His fullness of Spirit enabled him to see the supernatural.
2. Available in wisdom
Acts 6:3 - it was a mandatory requirement for the post
Acts 6:10 - a testimony to his wisdom
Wisdom comes from knowing and fearing God and from knowing the Scriptures.
1 Cor 1:18,24 says Christ is the wisdom of God.
To have wisdom is to know more about God and His word.
Wisdom of Stephen in the Word of God is evident as he speaks in Acts Ch. 7. He is said to have quoted 7 different passages from the O.T.
- Genesis 12:1
- Exodus 3:6
- Deut 18:15
- Amos 5:25
- Isaiah 66:1,2
He narrates around 40-50 other incidents.
3. Available in faith
Acts 6:5 - He was a man full of faith.
Acts 6:8 - Stephen, full of faith and power, did great wonders and signs among the people
His very sermon shows his faith in God who called Abraham, sent Jesus into the world through the lineage of Abraham to save His people.
Faith is something that must be manifested not just in easy times but also in tough times.
Hab 3:17 - Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior.
This was the faith of the prophet Habakkuk.
Disciples were rebuked by Jesus for their little faith. But Stephen was found to be full of faith, even at his martyrdom.
Our prayers are often a reflection of our faith. Those who believe God for great things ask Him for great things.
(Illustration - There was a man who had a dream and went up to heaven. In heaven, an angel took him around. He first took him to a place where there were huge gift boxes beautifully wrapped, but that place was very lonely. Rarely, an angel walked in and picked one gift and went. He wondered. Then, the angel took him to another place. This place was filled with many small gifts, some were so small to get into our pockets. But this place seemed very busy. There were numerous angels taking one gift after another down to earth. The man asked the angel who guided him, 'Why is it that there are so many angels taking these small gifts down to earth but rarely does one come to take the huge gifts. The angel replied, "The gifts, both big and small, are kept for humans. However, they always ask for small things. Rarely does one have faith enough to pray for greater ones. That is why, they are still here.")
Let us have the faith to ask God for greater miracles in our lives.
4. Available in power -
Acts 6:8 says that Stephen was full of power which helped him to do great wonders and signs among the people.
Acts 7:51 - the power enabled him to speak with great boldness to the people
Stephen was full of spirit, wisdom, faith and power. All of us may not of that same level of fullness as Stephen. But we must grow in our spiritual lives each day. We must not be in the same level today as yesterday. We need to change levels.
Contentment is needed for worldly things. However, for spiritual things, if we remain contended, we cannot grow.
Rev 22:11 - The Lord requires that we grow in our holiness and righteousness
Moses was on a mountain top experience amidst the glory of God but he was satisfied. He pràyed God to show him His glory.
Result of Stephen's availability:
As Stephen was serving God with power, there arose a problem.
6:9 – 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--who began to argue with Stephen.
Freedmen were former slaves set free by their owners. The members of the synagogue were from
-Cyrene: a port city in North Africa
-Cilicia: a region in South East Asia Minor bordering the Mediterranean Sea
-Tarsus: the hometown of Paul
-Alexandria: a port city in Egypt
-Asia: the Roman province occupying the western part of Asia Minor
Now the only way out for them was putting false charges against him
Acts 6:11 - Then they secretly persuaded some men to say, “We have heard Stephen speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God.” So they stirred up the people and the elders and the teachers of the law. They seized Stephen and brought him before the Sanhedrin.
He is now set before the council. Council members generally include high priests, rulers, elders and scribes
His Godly character is displayed outward by his angelic appearance. His face carried a divine presence (just like how Moses shone when he came down the mountain after being with God for forty days and forty nights). Since angels are always with God, they reflect the glory of God. That glory was now reflected in Stephen's face even as he was full of the Holy Spirit.
7:1 - He was questioned by the high priest. He begins right from Israel's history. He covers the following:
1. Patriarchal period - 7:2-16
2. Moses and the law - 7:17-43
3. The tabernacle and the temple - 7:44-50
4. Conclusion - 7:51-53: he concludes with Jesus.
6:10 - The fullness of wisdom was evident in the fact that they were not able to resist the wisdom with which Stephen spoke.
That is the promise the Lord gives us - Luke 21:15 - For I will give you words and wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict.
When the Holy Spirit speaks through His servants, there would be a group of stiff necked people who would resist the truth. During Moses' times as well, there were stiff-necked Israelites who resisted the Word of God. Even during Jesus’ times, stiff-necked religious leaders of His times resisted Him.
The same was true during the times of Stephen – Acts 7:51 - You stiff-necked people! Your hearts and ears are still uncircumcised. You are just like your ancestors: You always resist the Holy Spirit!
But Stephen was full of Holy Spirit and saw a heavenly vision (v55). He speaks out the vision that he saw and was stoned to death (v58).
Usually in other instances, Jesus is mentioned as sitting at the right hand of God. (Jesus himself says to the High priest in Mark 14:62 - “And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven). This verse Acts 7:55 is special since it involves all the three members of the Trinity - Holy Spirit, Jesus and the Father. A glorious vision to forget all our worries.
But here Jesus is mentioned as standing.
I believe it is to receive the first martyr for Christ (as recorded in the scriptures).
Martyrs have a very special place in heaven:
1. Rev 6:9 - Heaven has different levels of glory within it. Paul describes his experience of being taken to the third heaven.
Martyrs are also placed in a glorious place in heaven (below the altar). It is so because it takes courage to die as a martyr.
2. Rev 20:4 – Martyrs of the tribulation period have a special privilege of reigning with Jesus during the millennial rule of Jesus.
7:57, 58 - they stone him to death.
But see how the fullness of Spirit was manifest in Stephen's Godly character of forgiveness.
7v60 - He is asking God to forgive those who are stoning him to death. He is crying out to God with a loud voice, not for his life to be saved but for the forgiveness of those killing him.
Forgiveness is an important output of being filled in the Spirit.
Many a times, we find it difficult to forgive people for petty things. However, we must learn to forgive. Jesus asked God to forgive those who crucified Him. Stephen prays similarly. Let them be our role models during our hurting moments.
How beautifully the Lord answered this last tearful prayer of Stephen.
Who was responsible for the death of Stephen?
Acts 7:58; 8:1 - Saul was consenting to his death.
This Saul is none but Paul who received a divine encounter on his way to Damascus, took 3 missionary journeys and himself died as a martyr.
In Paul's words - Acts 22:20 - And when the blood of your martyr[a] Stephen was shed, I stood there giving my approval and guarding the clothes of those who were killing him.’
I strongly believe that Paul was an answered prayer of Stephen. His sincere cry at the moment of his death raised a mighty man of God named Paul.
Acts 8:2 - the whole church must have lamented for him. Many Bible scholars believe that he died at a young age. He lived a short but a valuable life.
He sets a model for us to be available to God in Spirit, Godly wisdom, faith and manifestation of the Power.