Summary: This a sermon given to a group of mainly over 60’s, challenging us to think about Stephen. In particular the way he copied Jesus by praying for his persecutors.
Acts 6: 7-15
At the time of Jesus there was a group of very faithful worshippers. This group of faithful worshippers were utterly dedicated to preserving the ways of God in their community. They loved their Bible (our Old Testament) and they were very vocal in their defence of the faith which had been handed down to them over many years. This group was regular in its worship, turning to prayer several times each day; and this loyal and faithful group of worshippers kept the Sabbath day. They would not dream of shopping on the Sabbath. In fact they would be very keen to ‘shop’ anyone who did! These faithful worshippers were known as the Pharisees. They did not like to be challenged about their faith in God, and when Jesus began preaching they soon made plans to get rid of him! Jesus was sent by God, but after 3 years of preaching and teaching the Pharisees got their wish; Jesus was crucified. The good news is that God had bigger plans, but the fact is that they crucified him.
How about Stephen? By his preaching and teaching Stephen made himself very unpopular with a large number of worshippers, not very long after the death and resurrection of Jesus. He was hauled before the religious council (the Sanhedrin), and in ways which mirror the ‘sham’ trial of Jesus, many false witnesses (Acts 6:13) were called to give evidence.
Jesus (and Stephen) were rejected and condemned as a result of their faithful and truthful preaching of the Good News of God; and when I read scripture I have to ask myself if I am guilty of the same. I ask myself whether there have been times when I’ve heard truth about God and I have rejected it and rejected the messenger. Do you want to know my answer? Sometimes I have! Between the ages of 13 and 17 I rejected God and there are still times on a daily basis when I reject him. However, “If we confess our sins [God] is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
Sometimes God’s word to us is hard to receive and hard to act upon! There were occasions when followers of Jesus stopped following him because for them his teaching was too hard. For example, after Jesus declared those famous words, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry …” (John 6:35) some of his followers began to grumble and complain! They said, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” (John 6:60). John the gospel writer tells us that “from this time many of [Jesus’] disciples turned back and no longer followed him” (John 6:66).
What about Stephen? Who was he? Where did he come from? Why does he have such an important place in Church history? What does his story teach us today? Well, I may not be able to answer all of those questions, but the Bible’s account of Stephen does have a lot to teach us.
After the ascension of Jesus, when the resurrected Lord Jesus ascended – was taken into heaven, the church grew rapidly. At the start of Acts chapter 6 we learn this: “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” (6:1). So, even in the New Testament church, just weeks after the church began, there was grumbling, and there were holes in the pastoral care being offered by the church! So perhaps our churches are much closer to the New Testament church than we often think!
The 12 could not spread themselves any thinner than they already were. If I were to give you a knob of butter and one slice of bread every morning it would be enough; but if I give you the same knob and a whole loaf, most of the loaf will be without butter! The 12 had to avoid spreading themselves too thinly!
(Acts 6:2) So they met together and agreed that as ministers of the Gospel they must not “neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables”. There were real pastoral needs in that first Christian community, and a team was needed. So, the disciples selected “seven men …full of the [Holy] Spirit and wisdom” (6:3). They were given responsibility for the food distribution, so that the 12 could give their “attention to prayer and the ministry of the word” (6:4).
Stephen was one of the team of seven who took on the food distribution, “the word of God spread” (6:7) and the church continued to grow.
Stephen distributed food. He was “a man full of God’s grace and power”. He “did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people” (6:8) and he sounds to me like a wonderful man to have around! He worked hard with his hands and his legs in acts of loving service, and he prayed effectively for people.