Summary: If you take away anything from Stephen’s message today, it should be this: Jesus is all you need. Say it with me: “Jesus is all I need.” Say it again: “Jesus is all I need!”
If you saw Stephen on the streets of Jerusalem or in the market, he probably wouldn’t seem very different from you or me. A good man … a good neighbor … a good friend … a hard worker … always ready to help. Maybe a good husband … we don’t know if he was married or not.
Lately he had been hanging out with some new friends … followers of something called “The Way.” These practitioners of “The Way” called themselves “Christians” … followers of a crucified rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth, whom they believe to be the messiah.
Stephen was always a kind and descent man, but lately he seemed more at peace … more full of joy … more confident … stronger somehow. He had a certain kind of light about him lately that shone in his eyes. The Shekinah Glory … the “Holy Spirit” he called it.
So it was a shame to hear what happened to him. What could have brought such a kind, helpful, generous man to the attention of the religious authorities? And what was so dangerous about this ordinary, unassuming man that the religious authorities felt that they had to stone him to death? He wasn’t a thief or a drunkard stirring up trouble all the time. He wasn’t a rebel or a zealot like Barabbas. He wasn’t a politician or a philosopher … though he had taken up preaching and debating with the Pharisees and scribes of the law in the marketplace and at the Temple. Why such an extreme reaction towards a good man … a good friend … a good neighbor... and an all-around nice guy?
We don’t know much about this first martyr of the faith. We know that he was an Hellenistic Jew … that is, he spoke Greek better than he spoke Aramaic … that he was more at home and more comfortable in the predominant Greek and Roman culture … but he was, nevertheless, Jewish.
We know that he was one of the seven men chosen to assist the Apostles with some of their leadership responsibilities, particularly seeing to the needs of the widows and the other Greek-speaking Jews in the growing Jerusalem church. We know that he had a powerful ministry in Jerusalem, doing “great signs and miraculous wonders among the people” (Acts 6:8).
As I have seen time and time again in the Bible and in my own life, whenever God is at work opposition arise. Some Jews “stood up and argued with Stephen,” says Luke in Chapter 6, verse 9. And I love this: “But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke” (v. 10) … so they had to go out and roust up a few men who were willing to lie and bring false charges of blasphemy against Stephen … which gets everyone stirred up and Stephen is seized and brought before the Sanhedrin (which is like the Jewish Supreme Court).
We tend to see a bit of a pattern when it comes to the Sanhedrin, don’t we? This is the same court and the very same religious judges … including the high priest Caiaphas … who tried to use false witnesses to condemn Jesus of blasphemy. And it is the same group of men who recently tried to condemn Peter and John for doing the same thing that Stephen had been doing. It seems that no matter what they do, however, the Sanhedrin just can’t seem to eliminate or quash this idea that Jesus is the Messiah. They kill Jesus … they try to put a gag order on Peter and John … and now they want to silence Stephen.
The intensity of their desire to silence Stephen shows in their faces. Verse 15 says that “all who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen.” In the Greek, Luke is saying that they were glaring and scowling. On the other hand, says Luke, Stephen was calm and serene “with a face like an angel” (v. 25).
Jesus once advised His Disciples: “See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. Beware of them, for they will hand you over to councils and flog you in the synagogues; and you will be dragged before governors and kings because of me, as a testimony to them and the gentiles. When they hand you over, do no worry about how to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given to you at that time; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you” (Matthew 10:16-20).
The Apostle Peter challenges us to be ready as well: “Always be prepared to give an answer to anyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect” (1st Peter 3:15).