Saturday, March 13, 2010

Stephen the Servant

Acts 6

Seven Chosen to Serve

1 Now in those days, when the number of the disciples was multiplying, there arose a complaint against the Hebrews by the Hellenists, because their widows were neglected in the daily distribution. 2 Then the twelve summoned the multitude of the disciples and said, "It is not desirable that we should leave the word of God and serve tables. 3 Therefore, brethren, seek out from among you seven men of good reputation, full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom, whom we may appoint over this business; 4 but we will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the word."

[Here we have the first recorded problem with entitlements. The all-things-in-common philosophy hit a snag with the discovery that some of the widows were not getting what they needed. The apostles seemed a little frustrated by this, so they ask for help. They would appoint spirit-filled, wise men of good reputation, to help the apostles by serving the church. The Greek root word for servant is "diakanos" from which we derive the word deacon. But "diakanos" in it various forms is used all over the New Testament for all forms of servants, from apostles and preachers, to the people who serve meals. But regardless of the task you will find spirit-filled, wise, and reputable, are good requirements for any job within the church. God can do a lot with a person like that.]

5 And the saying pleased the whole multitude. And they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, and Philip, Prochorus, Nicanor, Timon, Parmenas, and Nicolas, a proselyte from Antioch, 6 whom they set before the apostles; and when they had prayed, they laid hands on them.

[So these servants are commissioned by the apostles with prayer and the laying on of hands.]

7 Then the word of God spread, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith.

[With all the opposition the apostles got from the priests and Sadducees, you had to wonder why they kept preaching at the temple. And here you have the answer, because of their faithfulness in preaching, a great many priests repented and trusted Jesus as their savior and Lord.]

8 And Stephen, full of faith[b] and power, did great wonders and signs among the people. 9 Then there arose some from what is called the Synagogue of the Freedmen (Cyrenians, Alexandrians, and those from Cilicia and Asia), disputing with Stephen. 10 And they were not able to resist the wisdom and the Spirit by which he spoke.

[Up to now we had not seen the spiritual sign gifts demonstrated in someone who was not one of the apostles, but here Stephen is able to do these things, and with the same purpose, that he could preach Jesus to those drawn by the miracles. Again we also see the opposition to Jesus. The rest of chapter 6 tells how these men arranged accusations and false witnesses against Stephen, just like they did with Jesus. So we will pick up the story with Stephen on trial, accused of speaking against the temple and the Law of Moses.]

15 And all who sat in the council, looking steadfastly at him, saw his face as the face of an angel.

Stephen's Address: The Call of Abraham

1 Then the high priest said, "Are these things so?" 2 And he said, "Brethren and fathers, listen: The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he dwelt in Haran, 3 and said to him, 'Get out of your country and from your relatives, and come to a land that I will show you.' 4 Then he came out of the land of the Chaldeans and dwelt in Haran.

[Realizing that this trial is about preserving the Jewish traditions and the power of the rulers, he gives them a history of Israel starting with the call of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob then continues with Jacob's sons.]

9 "And the patriarchs, becoming envious, sold Joseph into Egypt. But God was with him 10 and delivered him out of all his troubles, and gave him favor and wisdom in the presence of Pharaoh, king of Egypt; and he made him governor over Egypt and all his house.

[He tells of how Joseph came to Egypt by trouble, but God gave him power and influence.]

17 "But when the time of the promise drew near which God had sworn to Abraham, the people grew and multiplied in Egypt 18 till another king arose who did not know Joseph. 19 This man dealt treacherously with our people, and oppressed our forefathers, making them expose their babies, so that they might not live. 20 At this time Moses was born, and was well pleasing to God; and he was brought up in his father's house for three months. 21 But when he was set out, Pharaoh's daughter took him away and brought him up as her own son.

[He continues with Israel in bondage and the deliverance of Moses because God had a plan for him. How Moses fled to the plain of Midian where he remained until God appeared to him, so that he could lead the nation of Israel.]

35 "This Moses whom they rejected, saying, 'Who made you a ruler and a judge?'[i] is the one God sent to be a ruler and a deliverer by the hand of the Angel who appeared to him in the bush. 36 He brought them out, after he had shown wonders and signs in the land of Egypt, and in the Red Sea, and in the wilderness forty years.

[Here is where you see Stephen beginning to show his plot line. "Moses whom they rejected", "showing signs and wonders", you can see the parallel he is drawing to Jesus.]

44 "Our fathers had the tabernacle of witness in the wilderness, as He appointed, instructing Moses to make it according to the pattern that he had seen, 45 which our fathers, having received it in turn, also brought with Joshua into the land possessed by the Gentiles, whom God drove out before the face of our fathers until the days of David, 46 who found favor before God and asked to find a dwelling for the God of Jacob. 47 But Solomon built Him a house.
48 "However, the Most High does not dwell in temples made with hands, as the prophet says:
' Heaven is My throne,
      And earth
My footstool.
      What house will you build for Me? says the LORD,
      Or what
the place of My rest?
Has My hand not
made all these things?'

[As we saw before a part of the significance of the Holy Spirit is to reveal the presence of God is with those born-of-the-spirit, no longer in the old temple. This is dangerous ground for Stephen, for some held the temple as an object of worship not just a place to worship God.]

51 "You stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears! You always resist the Holy Spirit; as your fathers did, so do you. 52 Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who foretold the coming of the Just One, of whom you now have become the betrayers and murderers, 53 who have received the law by the direction of angels and have not kept it."

[Here Stephen goes all in. Early in his sermon, it seems Stephen might use their common history to build a bond, and relax the tensions. But Stephen is not there to make nice, he is there are a witness for Jesus Christ. He is looking for conviction and repentance leading to salvation.]

54 When they heard these things they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed at him with their teeth. 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, 56 and said, "Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!"
57 Then they cried out with a loud voice, stopped their ears, and ran at him with one accord; 58 and they cast him out of the city and stoned him.
And the witnesses laid down their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul. 59 And they stoned Stephen as he was calling on God and saying, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." 60 Then he knelt down and cried out with a loud voice, "Lord, do not charge them with this sin." And when he had said this, he fell asleep.

["Cut to the heart" is the same sign of conviction we saw in Acts 2 when Peter preached. That time they asked "what should they do" and Peter told them to repent. Here they react to the conviction with violence. Stephen facing death continues to glorify God with his words and his courage. Committing his spirit to Jesus and praying forgiveness for his killers, mirrors much of when Jesus did during his crucifixion. One big difference is that Stephen never felt forsaken as he died. Jesus had to be forsaken so he could bear our sins. By contrast Stephen experiences a heavenly vision of the glorified Lord.

It seems strange that the first man martyred for preaching a gospel, was not even an apostle. Appointed to serve tables, Stephen took sharing Jesus as his first responsibility. He looked beyond himself, his own safety, even his own life, to preach Jesus. This was the beginning of a persecution that would scatter the church and spread the gospel worldwide. Even a tragedy can work to fulfill God's purpose.]

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