Today, in some parts of the country it’s customary to spend time after lunch decorating the grave of your deceased mother. I remember during my years in college down in Alabama-this was a big deal-the whole family went to church and then to lunch and then out to the grave to place fresh flowers. If you were to drive past cemeteries on Mother’s Day in that part of the South this afternoon you’d see hundreds of people, children, grandchildren-all visiting tombs for this purpose. It’s one day each year that cemeteries are actually crowded.
Now, as I’ve told you in the past-I enjoy visiting cemeteries. And, in case you’ve never heard me say this, then don’t get the wrong idea. I’m not morbid. It’s just that I like to read tombstones. You see, I’ve always been a “people watcher.” I mean some guys are interested in cars or mountain-climbing-but I’m interested in people. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons God called me to this particular line of work. Well, I’ve discovered that you can learn a lot about people by reading tombstones.
Now, another reason I enjoy reading tombstones is because sometimes they are quite humorous. To show you what I mean, listen to these examples of epitaphs that I came across this week. Before he died one person apparently arranged for this to be etched on his stone: “I told you I was sick!” Another said this:
Here lies Ann Mann
Who lived an old maid
But died an old Mann.
Dec. 8, 1767
For not rising
She always said her feet were killing her
but nobody believed her.
How about this one?
Looked up the elevator shaft to see if
the car was on the way down.
And I’ve saved one of my favorites for last. I remember my dad and I finding it in a museum one summer while we were on vacation in the Smokey Mountains:
Under the sod and under the trees
Lies the body of Jonathan Pease
He is not here, There’s only the pod:
Pease shelled out and went home to God.
Well, as you can see, epitaphs CAN be humorous but over the years, as I’ve walked through numerous cemeteries I’ve learned that-they can also be very MOVING-inspiring even! And today I want us to look at one of the most MOVING, epitaphs I have ever read. As far as I know it wasn’t engraved on this individual’s tomb but God made sure it was included in His written Word and it serves as a powerful testimony to this particular person’s life. The epitaph I’m referring to is in Acts 8 verse 2 where it says, “Godly men buried STEPHEN and mourned deeply for him.”
Now, think about that. Wouldn’t you agree that it be great to have something like that said about you when you died? I mean, what better epitaph could you have-than for it to be said that GODLY people mourned DEEPLY for you when you left this earthly plain! That is a high compliment indeed!
Well, today, as we continue our study of the book of Acts, we are about to examine the record of Stephen’s brief life. It’s found in Acts 6 & 7. Unfortunately time doesn’t allow us to read both of these chapters this morning in their entirety, but open to Acts 6 and follow along in our Bibles now as I lead you through a review his life..so that together we can learn why Stephen was so admired and loved.
1. The first thing we see about Stephen that would make Godly men mourn his passing is the fact that he was truly a SPIRIT-FILLED person.
This fact is affirmed at least four times in these two chapters. The first is in the first few verses of Acts 6, where it tells us that the disciples were trying to solve a problem that had arisen in the early church. Due to their rapid growth, some of the widows were not getting their fair share of the food that was to be set aside to meet their needs. You’re no doubt familiar with this story because we have studied it frequently together as a church over the years. Remember? This is that infamous crisis that arose from within the early church that led to the “invention” of deacons-as the apostles instructed the church to choose seven men to deal with this issue. And in verse 3 it says that one of the requirements to be one of these first seven deacons was that the person be “full of the Spirit and wisdom.” Stephen was chosen because he measured up to this requirement. He was “full of the Spirit.”
Another example is in verse 8 where it says that Stephen was, “a man full of God’s grace and power”-another way of describing this particular attribute. And then look down at verse 10 where Luke talks about certain Jews arguing with Stephen but it says, “they could not stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by Whom he spoke.” Finally if you flip over to Acts 7:55 you’ll see that it says that, in response the criticism of the Sanhedrin Stephen, “full of the Holy Spirit looked up to heaven…” So, Stephen was indeed a SPIRIT-FILLED person and if we are to have obituaries like his-if when we die we want Godly people to mourn our passing-then we too must live our lives such that it is obvious that we are filled by the Spirit of God.
Now-let’s take a minute or two to review exactly what it means to be “Spirit-filled.”
Basically a Spirit-filled person is someone who literally makes Jesus LORD of his or her entire life-their thoughts, their actions, their reactions. A Spirit-filled person is someone who allows the Spirit of God to FILL them-they let our Lord literally use his or her flesh to do His will.
When I think of this principle I can’t help but think of Adrian Rodgers definition of the Holy Spirit as simply, “Christ in the Christian.” You see, in order to be SPIRIT-FILLED we must allow Christ to truly live in and through us. And this CAN happen to all Christians because all Christians receive the Holy Spirit the moment they accept Jesus as Lord and Savior.
This is what Jesus promised. Do you remember? The night of His arrest He told His followers that He would be leaving them. When they panicked at the thought of losing their Leader, Jesus lovingly comforted them by saying, “Don’t worry…I won’t leave you as orphans. I won’t leave you alone. I’m going to send ANOTHER Helper and He will be even more helpful to you than I am. Because He won’t just be at your side-as I am-but WITHIN you!”
Well-a Spirit-filled person then is someone who welcomes the Spirit’s leadership from within and allows that leadership to extend into all of life. His life is literally FULL of the Spirit of God.
He allows God to rule every moment of his life such that this person reminds people of Jesus. It’s kind of like that famous statement of St. Athanasius. Referring to our Lord he said, “He became what we are, that He might make us what He is.” In other words, old Athanasius was saying God sent Jesus to earth as a human being to pay our sin debt so He could cleanse us of sin and then send His Holy Spirit to live in and through us-making us into truly Christlike people. By the way, this is what the word “Christian” literally means-“little Christ.” And these two chapters of Acts tell us that Stephen did this. He let Jesus live in and through Him. In fact, studying his brief life in these two chapters shows that there are numerous PARALLELS between Jesus and Stephen.
- The Bible says Jesus was full of grace. It says the same thing about Stephen.
- Jesus performed miracles. So did Stephen.
- Jesus boldly confronted the religious establishment of the day. So did Stephen.
- Jesus was convicted by lying witnesses. So was Stephen.
- Jesus was executed though innocent of any crime. So was Stephen.
- Both were accused of blasphemy.
- Both died outside the city and were buried by sympathizers.
- And-both prayed for the salvation of their executioners.
Well, let me ask you. Do you do this-do you let Jesus live through you? Are you a SPIRIT-FILLED Christian? Have you allowed Jesus to indwell you to the extent that He reminds people of Him? As many of you know, Lee Strobel was once an avowed atheist-but through the witness of his wife he became a Christian and experienced the life-transforming power of the new birth. He writes,
“My daughter Allison, was 5 years old when I became a follower of Jesus, and all she had known in those 5 years was a dad who was profane and angry. I remember I came home one night and kicked a hole in the living-room wall just out of anger with life. I am ashamed to think of the times Allison hid in her room to get away from me. Five months after I gave my life to Jesus Christ, that little girl went to my wife and said, ‘Mommy, I want God to do for me what he’s done for Daddy!’ At age five! What was she saying? She’d never studied the archeological evidence supporting the Biblical accounts like I had. All she knew was her dad used to be this way; hard to live with. But more and more her dad is becoming different. And if that is what God does to people, then sign her up. At age 5 she gave her life to Jesus.”
Do you see what I’m talking about? Strobel invited Jesus into his heart and life-He gave our Lord the “reigns” of his life and allowed Him to change him-and the more Strobel became like Jesus, the more his little girl wanted to know Jesus herself. This is because SPIRIT-FILLED people like Strobel and Stephen remind people of Jesus and the fact is, the more like Jesus you are, the more people will miss you when you’ve gone on to Heaven.
2. Another thing that made people love Stephen was the fact that He took our Lord’s Great Commission PERSONALLY.
He knew Jesus had commanded His followers to take the Gospel to the entire world and he believed this command applied to him! He wasn’t like many believers who think evangelism is someone else’s job. I say this because Stephen didn’t stay in the temple with the rest of the early church. No, he took the gospel to his own people-his own personal peer group.
Let me explain. In Jerusalem there were two kinds of Jews. There were what you might call “Palestinian Jews” who were from Israel and spoke Aramaic. And there were “Helenistic Jews”-Jews who were descendants of the Jews that had been dispersed during the Babylonian captivity and who were born in foreign lands and therefore spoke Greek.
Due to this language difference this latter group of Jews met in their own synagogues scattered throughout the city. The Talmud tells us that there were 480 such synagogues in Jerusalem at this time. Well, Stephen was himself a Hellenistic Jew-and I say this because his name was a Greek name. Plus in chapter 7 when he quotes from the Scriptures, he quotes the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament-something a Hellenistic Jew would do. Well, Acts 6 tells us that Stephen went to these Hellenistic Jews and ministered to them in their synagogues, doing miracles, teaching them the Gospel with great wisdom. In other words, He took the Great Commission personally by going to his own peer group-that place-those people-where he knew he could have the most impact. He saw his people-his friends-his co-workers-as his responsibility, his mission field.
Perhaps Stephen was the first to recognize a powerful principle of missions-that the most effective missionaries are indigenous. I mean the best way to win a people group to Christ is to lead some of them to the Lord and then commission them to go out to their own people sharing the Gospel.
Well, the fact is, you’re an indigenous missionary. There are people in your realm of influence whom you have something in common and who therefore will be more receptive to your witness than that of any one else! And if you take the Great Commission personally, like Stephen did, well then, you will look for opportunities to share your faith with these people: friends, co-workers, neighbors, all those people who make up your personal assignment in the “Great Commission mission field.”
One of the speakers at the Building A Contagious Christian conference a few weeks ago was Stephen Baldwin, younger brother of Hollywood’s famous, and sometimes INFAMOUS, Baldwin brothers. Perhaps you’ve seen him in the movies or on TV’s Celebrity Mole. During one of the conference sessions Stephen told us how he became a Christian. He said that since his wife is from Central America, they hired a maid from that same region. She didn’t speak English and she sang the entire time she worked. Baldwin didn’t speak Spanish but he recognized one word that kept coming up in the songs that she sang: JESUS.
So, one day he asked his made, with his wife translating, why she sang about Jesus all the time. When he did this, the maid began to laugh and told Stephen Baldwin and his wife that she was a Christian and that she had taken the job as his maid because she felt God had called her to do so. In fact, when she was offered the job, she went to her pastor and they prayed and felt God answer telling her this would give her an opportunity to lead Baldwin to Christ and that he would then begin his own Christian ministry.
And eventually this is what happened. First his wife decided to follow Jesus and then a year later Baldwin became a Christian. And when that happened he took the Great Commission personally just like Stephen. He felt, he had a realm of influence that no one else had and that this was his assignment from Jesus. That realm of influence is the film industry. So one of the first things he did was use his skills to make a movie-to be shown to teens who like to skateboard. The film shows them doing amazing things on skateboards but it’s also filled with the testimonies of Christian teens who are themselves skateboarders. Since Baldwin has an “in” with the film industry, he felt it was his responsibility to take the gospel there. I imagine he’ll be making other films for this purpose in the future.
Well, what about you? Could it be said that you take the Great Commission PERSONALLY? If not then I would question whether or not you are allowing Jesus’ Spirit to fill you because you see Jesus came “to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10) and if we allow Him to truly be Lord of our lives, we will do the same.
Now-Acts 6:9 says that everyone didn’t welcome Stephen’s witness. A small but vocal minority rose up against him and tried to argue with him concerning the Gospel.
But they couldn’t-Stephen knew His Scripture too well-so instead they conspired against him and accused him of blasphemy against God and the law. They grabbed Stephen and took him to stand trial before the revenge-hungry Sanhedrin who, you remember aren’t at all happy with the Christian movement. Look at verses 13-14 of chapter 6 where it says they,
“…put forward false witnesses who said, [to the Sanhedrin] ‘This man incessantly speaks against this holy place [the temple] and the law…
…for we have heard him say that this Nazarene, Jesus, will destroy this place and alter the customs which Moses handed down to us.'”
And then, speaking of Moses, be sure to look at verse 15 because it says something very interesting. When the Sanhedrin looked intently-angrily-at Stephen they saw that his face was like the face of an angel. In other words, his glowed with the presence of God-in the same way that Moses’ face had glowed after his time on the mountain when God gave him the 10 Commandments. I mean, all they had to do to see how foolish these charges were, was to look in his face and remember their history but as it has been said, “None are so blind as those who will not see.” Well, in the way that Stephen answered the charges that were leveled at him we see another quality that made people admire him…because his response showed that he was…
3. …a skilled STUDENT of the written Word of God.
Stephen had apparently spend hours and hours studying the Old Testament. I say this because like Peter, Stephen’s His reaction to his arrest and questioning was a Scripture-laden sermon-the longest sermon in the book of Acts-53 verses that cover two thousand years of Jewish history. And Stephen not only knew his Bible-He knew how to apply it’s principles and precepts to new circumstances. He was wise with the wisdom of God’s Word.
Last Saturday I spent the morning at Derwood Bible Church. Their pastor and my friend, Steve Petit, had invited me to sit on the ordination council of a member of their church who feels called to full time ministry. His name is John Long and he serves as their Minister of Youth. He’s done so on a sort of part-time basis for several years and now feels God calling him to leave his profession and become a full-time youth pastor. I was very impressed with this young man, because, just like Stephen, He knew the Scripture! He answered each of the dozens of questions that were levied at him with Scripture-laden responses and when he quoted a Scripture verse he always knew the reference as well. I believe God will use the life of John Long in a powerful way because he knows His Bible! He knows how to apply it to the situations teens face. He knows how to “rightly divide the Word of Truth.”
And the same thing was true about Stephen. In fact, in his sermon he skillfully wielded the Scripture like a literal “sword of truth!” Understand-his was not a prepared sermon. It was his impromptu response to their false charges and this serves to remind us that crisis shows what is inside us. More than anything PRESSURE from the outside brings out what is INSIDE our hearts. Obviously Stephen had hidden the Word of God inside his heart because that’s what came out when he was under this pressure. Let’s look at his sermon and review his main points and you’ll see what I mean. It’s in Luke 7, verses 2-53.
A. As you read his message you’ll see that his first point was to counter their accusation that he had spoken against their beloved temple.
He did this by reminding them that the Scriptures teach that God is not limited to a physical structure-He didn’t just dwell in the temple in Jerusalem. Stephen reminded them that God had appeared to Abraham while he was still in Mesopotamia and to Joseph while he was in Egypt and to Moses on Mt. Sinai. Then he quoted the prophet Isaiah through whom God said, “Heaven is My throne and the earth is My footstool! What kind of house will you build for Me? Or where will My resting place be? Has not My hand made all these things!”
B. In the second part of his sermon he countered their accusation that he had maligned the law of God.
With his skillful use of Scripture basically he said, “You’re one to talk! You have always rejected God’s leaders AND their words.” After all, as the book of Genesis says, the patriarchs rejected their brother Joseph and the people rejected Moses and the commands God had given him. In fact, as Stephen pointed out, their continual refusal to reject God’s law and His prophets is why God allowed them to be sent to captivity by the Babylonians! And then at this point in his sermon Stephen went for the jugular.
C. He said, “Not only does the Scripture record the fact that your forefathers disobeyed the law and rejected Moses, but you yourselves rejected and killed the very One Moses prophesied about!”
Look at verse 52 where he says, “Was there ever a prophet your fathers did NOT persecute?! They even killed those who predicted the coming of the Righteous One. And now you have betrayed and murdered Him, [Jesus]. You who have received the law…have not obeyed it.”
Well, in spite of his skillful use of the Scripture, the Sanhedrin refused to hear. By my count this is the third time they have heard the Gospel but they still reject its message. Verse 54 says that instead they gnashed their teeth in great anger-something most of them are probably still doing in Hell at this very moment. At this point in his message Stephen tells the Sanhedrin that he is having a vision-that he see’s right into heaven where Jesus is standing at the right hand of God.
And this pushes them to the boiling point. They cover their ears so as not to hear him and drown him out with their shouts. They behave like kids who put their hands on their ears so as not to hear their parent’s loving instruction and say, “LA LA LA…I’m not listening…LA LA LA.”
And at this point we see a 3rd reason Stephen was so loved and admired and missed when he died.
4. You see, Stephen was a man of great COURAGE.
I say this because throughout this terrifying ordeal, Stephen bravely stood his ground. Despite the intense opposition he encountered, he never backed down or compromised. When his powerful enemies threatened, he fearlessly reiterated the gospel message. And when in great rage the Sanhedrin rushed him and dragged him outside of the city and began to stone him to death, Stephen never cried out in terror. He faced a painful, brutal death with great bravery.
By the way the Greek word for “rushed” here in verse 57 is the same Greek word that is used in Mark 5:13 to describe the mad rush of the herd of demon-possessed swine into the Sea of Galilee.
It’s also used in Acts 19:29 to describe the frenzied mob that rushed into the theater at Ephesus. To put it in terms of modern English, these guys LOST IT. Casting aside dignity and propriety, the highest court in Israel was reduced to a howling, murderous mob. But, as I said, this didn’t frighten Stephen. Why? Why wasn’t he afraid of what these men were doing to him? Well, perhaps the disciples had taught him what Jesus had said about fear. It’s recorded in Luke 12:5,
“I will show you whom you should fear: Fear Him Who after the killing of the body has the power to throw you into hell. Yes I tell you, fear Him.”
This reminds me of another Christian martyr named Polycarp. He was pastor of the church at Symrna-and had been a student of John the Apostle. His ministry ended in AD 156 when persecution came and they tortured and threw the Christians to wild beasts. Polycarp was marched into the amphitheater where a mob was waiting to see what form of ghoulish pleasure they could get from watching this old saintly man crucified. As he stood before the pro-counsel he was commanded to deny Christ but he replied, “80 and 6 years I have served Him and He has never done me any harm. How can I blaspheme my King and my Savior?” As the old man stood before the crowd in the stadium the governor shouted, “I’ll have you destroyed by fire unless you change your attitude.” He answered, “You threaten me with fire which burns an hour and after a little is extinguished. But you are ignorant of the fires of the coming judgement and of eternal punishment reserved for the ungodly. But why do you delay? Bring on what you will!” The crowd gathered. They threw wood and torches on the fire. They cheered as the Godly man was brought to the stake and as the flames began to curl around his body Polycarp prayed, “Lord God, I thank You that You have graciously thought me worthy of this day and this hour that I may be part of the number of martyrs to die for Christ.”
Well, the fact is Spirit-filled people like Polycarp and Stephen aren’t afraid of torture and death. In fact they fear only one thing. They fear not pleasing our Heavenly Father. And this is as it should be. Do you remember the words of John Donne? He said “If you fear only God, you’ll fear nothing else. If you don’t fear God, you’ll fear everything else.”
Well, Christians like Stephen live to please our Lord. The only fear they have is not doing so. There’s an illustration I came across this week that I love. It’s the story of a pianist who loved the piano, worked hard at it, and was taught by a great master. After years of study he performed his first concert. The audience loved his skill at the keyboard and was wildly enthusiastic at the end of the concert. They gave him a standing ovation with roaring applause, cheers, weeping. The concertmaster congratulated the young pianist, saying: “What a triumph for someone who has worked so hard to have such honor!” But the pianist was dejected and crushed. “Not everybody was cheering.” He said. The concertmaster replied, “Well, it’s possible not EVERYBODY was cheering, but most of them were-why make so much of it?” The young pianist said, “There is one man up there in the front row of the balcony who did not stand up to cheer. He is my teacher, and I will never be a triumph without his approval.”
That story is poignant, but let’s contrast it with the experience of Stephen before his death. Remember, according to verse 55, filled with the Spirit he saw heaven opened and Jesus STANDING at the right hand of God. Now, everywhere else when we see Christ in glory in the Bible, Jesus is SEATED at the right hand of God. To be seated is to have completed your work, to be a ruler under whose feet all has been placed. But here Jesus is STANDING. Why? Well, could it be so that He could applaud Stephen-who never gave up and who told the truth to the end…someone who pleased our Lord with the way he lived his brief life? Could it be that Jesus was giving Stephen sort of a standing ovation as He welcomed him home? I know that I’m no Stephen-but when I die-I want to know that my Master has been pleased with my life! What about you?
Now-at this point I imagine you are admiring Stephen as much as his peers did and if so, you may be wondering, why did Stephen die so young. Why did God allow the life of such an awesome young man to be cut off so soon? Well, we don’t know all the reasons God allowed this. We don’t know why He does what He does. His ways are not our ways. His thoughts are not our thoughts. But we do know this. The book of Acts says there was a man named Saul standing there watching Stephen’s execution. And, as we all know Saul became Paul-and there has been no greater missionary than he. He wrote half the books of the New Testament, took the gospel where it had never gone, and was instrumental in the inclusion of Gentiles in the early church. No Christian has influenced the world as profoundly as Paul. Acts 20:22 tells us that Saul never forgot Stephen’s death. It apparently had a profound impact on his life. We also know that Paul’s first exposure to the Gospel came through Stephen. Perhaps the memory Stephen’s life and the way he died was part of the catalyst that led Saul to decide to become a believer himself. Perhaps this memory helped fire his passion for missions.
Another thing-Acts 8 tells us that Stephen’s death was the beginning of a time of wide-spread persecution of Christians. Acts 8:2 says, “On that day a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem and all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea and Samaria…” Acts 8:4-9 says that another deacon, Philip, fled to Samaria and took the gospel there. Because of this Acts says “there was great joy in that city.” Philip wouldn’t have gone there to share the gospel if it weren’t for Stephen’s death. It motivated believers like Philip to go out from Jerusalem and they took the gospel with them. In fact, some scholars don’t think they fled out of fear but because they felt Stephen’s stoning was the sign from God that it was time to hit the road with the Gospel. This is because in Matthew 10:23, Jesus had said, “When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another.” So, we don’t always know why things like this happen, but we do know that God only allows things to happen that are for our good or His glory and hindsight shows that to be the case here. Good-amazing good-came from Stephen’s death.
So-Stephen received this wonderful epitaph because he was Spirit-filled, because he took the Great Commission personally, because he was a skilled student of God’s Word and because of his great courage. I’m sure you’d agree that he deserves these words. Well, what about you? How is your obituary shaping up? If you were to die today, would Godly people mourn your passing? More importantly, would Jesus be proud of the way you have served Him? Would He stand to applaud your life?