Stephen, along with handing out food, was preaching the gospel and doing miraculous signs and wonders. In the middle of this a certain group of Grecian Jews took issue with him. When they could not win an argument with him, they turned their energies to finding false witnesses and bringing him up on charges in the Sanhedrin.
The charge against him was blasphemy against Moses and against God, and making statements that Jesus would destroy the temple and change their customs. This was not a new fear that the Synagogue of the Freedmen was playing on. Remember Jesus himself said in Matthew 5;17, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” Jesus had been accused of trying to abolish the law, but what those who made that accusation did not consider was that their idea of the Law and God’s idea of the Law were two different things. Jesus was bringing a righteousness that surpassed that of the scribes and Pharisees and teachers of the law, and making that righteousness accessible to all who believe.
Stephen answers the accusations against him by speaking to the Sanhedrin directly from the Old Testament history of their own people, they can’t argue against what he is saying, because it is all true. He emphasizes God as the mover and planner behind all the events in their history, they can’t argue with that. He tells them that they rejected and threw out both Joseph and Moses, who God used to rescue their people and lead them. They can’t argue with that. He presents to them the sin of the people in seeking their own solutions, even to turning to idolatry to gain what only the one true God can give them. They can’t argue with that either.
The last point he made in this section was that God was with them before they had the tabernacle, before they had the temple. He had given his promises to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and used Moses to bring them out of slavery, these are the most important events in the formation of Judaism and they all occurred before there was a representative physical structure in their midst, no tabernacle, and no temple. If God did all of those things before the tabernacle and temple, and if God himself says that he does not dwell in houses made by men, why would he need the temple to continue his ministry among the people?
Stephen then moves from historical dissertation to personal application. Stephen is telling them that they have not changed; they are just as unspiritual as their ancestors. Just as their predecessors had persecuted the prophets and rejected God’s leaders, they had rejected Jesus Christ the Righteous One. They had set themselves up to be judges over God’s anointed one, and yet they have not been obeying the Law that God had given them.
When Stephen brought all of this home, the people of the assembly could not bear it. They were overcome by their anger and rage and they murdered Stephen. The actions of those gathered in the Sanhedrin that day were not only wrong, they were illegal. In order to execute someone, they had to convict someone of specific charges and bring it before a vote in the elders of the Sanhedrin. Then, because the Sanhedrin had no direct authority to execute anyone, they would have had to get permission from the Roman officials before taking any action. So what they carried out that day, out of self-righteous indignation, was not an execution, it was murder.
And in the face of that murderous gang, Stephen looked to Heaven. As they pummeled him with stones, he saw Jesus at the right hand of God, and commended his soul to Christ. And as the life was being beaten out of him, he prayed for forgiveness for his attackers including a young man, zealous for the protection of his faith, named Saul. That young man would go on to be the greatest persecutor of the early church and then the greatest promoter of that same church. Stephen had no idea of the things to come, or that one of those who stood by giving approval to his death would change the world, but he prayed for their forgiveness out of the heart of mercy and compassion given to him by the Holy Spirit.
In spite of his not knowing the full consequences of his prayer, Stephen made an impact on the young Saul. Luke, the author of this book, was a traveling companion of Paul. The information about this story almost certainly was given by Paul or at least was contributed to by him. Otherwise how would Luke know that a young, un-influential man was standing by guarding the coats of those who were throwing stones at the first martyr of the faith?
There are a couple of things I want us to take home with us today. The first is a continuation of last week’s emphasis that all tasks in ministry are important and make a big difference. But today I want us to add to that theme that spiritual maturity and knowledge of the things of God are important for anyone serving in any ministry position. I am not talking about a seminary degree, but a careful, diligent study of the scriptures, and a relationship with God in Christ are essential no matter what the ministry. It is easy to think, “Oh, I just serve cool-aid. Oh, I just greet people as they come in. Oh, I just take up the offering. Oh, I just clean the church every once in a while. I don’t really need biblical knowledge or spiritual strength to do those things.” And we neglect our own spiritual growth because we think it is not necessary for us to do the job.
I want to challenge you today to view every task you do for God or for the church as a bona-fide ministry. What would happen if you prayed for every person that you served cool-aid to that God would touch their life? Or for every person you greet at the door that God would open their heart to hear from him? Or for every contribution to the offering, that God would multiply it and use it to build his kingdom? Or for those who will use the parts of the church you clean that they will be without distraction as they worship and hear from God? What would happen if we truly saw everything we did as being a service to the kingdom, a service to the king?
The second emphasis this morning is that you never know who your faith and obedience will touch. Stephen did not set out that day to become the first martyr. He did not set out that day to give a speech in the Sanhedrin. He did not set out that day to make such an impact on a young zealot that it would stay with him the rest of his life. Stephen set out that day to do what he did every day—live in obedience to the Savior who had given him life, and to be a faithful witness to the gospel in whatever circumstance he found himself in. Too often we are in a BIG hurry to do BIG things for God. The reality is that God can do so much more with a determination to obedience and faithfulness, than he can a determination to do big things for the kingdom.
I want to challenge you to be faithful, even in the little things. As you go to work, as you clean your house, as you care for those in need, as you volunteer, as you work in your garden, as you live your life in all of the seemingly insignificant things you do, do them as unto the Lord. Do them in obedience and faithfulness to the high calling we have all received. And as we do those little things as unto the Lord, we ought not to be surprised when God uses those little things to give us big opportunities to witness to the truth of the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ.