Good morning church family! This week we are finishing up chapter 6 in the Acts of the Apostles and we are also going to learn about the disciple Stephen. Last week we discussed how the number of disciples was increasing rapidly through the apostles’ bold preaching about God. Keep in mind, long before the violent persecution broke out against Christians, which we are about to witness in the next chapter, social ostracism was occurring.
Jews who accepted Jesus as the Messiah, who we call Messianic Jews, were usually cut off from their families. And as was mentioned before, this resulted in the believers depending upon each other for support. The sharing of homes, food and resources was both a practical and necessary mark of the early church. As an aside, I just want to point out here, that the early church did not rely on the government for assistance, they relied on the church for assistance.
Eventually the continued growth of the church made it necessary to organize the sharing as people were being overlooked in the distribution process. We learned while the church consisted of all Jews at this point, there were two types of Jews – the Hellenists and the Hebraic. And the Hellenists were the ones who felt they were being left out and so registered a complaint.
In the problem-solving process, the apostles determined that prayer and preaching were their primary duties so someone else needed to handle the distribution of food. Seven men were elected to handle this new role which could be considered the role of a deacon. As such, we begin the witness of different roles being established among the disciples based on natural and spiritual gifts.
Let’s move on to verses 8-15 in chapter six. Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, performed great wonders and signs among the people. Opposition arose, however, from members of the Synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called)—Jews of Cyrene and Alexandria as well as the provinces of Cilicia and Asia—who began to argue with Stephen.But they could not stand up against the wisdom the Spirit gave him as he spoke.
Then they secretly persuaded some men to say, “We have heard Stephen speak blasphemous words against Moses and against God.”
So, they stirred up the people and the elders and the teachers of the law. They seized Stephen and brought him before the Sanhedrin. They produced false witnesses, who testified, “This fellow never stops speaking against this holy place and against the law. For we have heard him say that this Jesus of Nazareth will destroy this place and change the customs Moses handed down to us.”
All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.
Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, performed great wonders and signs among the people. Up until this point in Acts, only the apostles are reported as having worked miraculous signs and we see that in Acts 2:43; 3:4-5; and 5:12. But now, after the laying on of the apostle’s hands, Stephen too is reported as working miraculous signs. Philip the evangelist will also do so. We’ll learn more about him a little later in our study.
The freedmen mentioned in this passage are persons who had been freed from slavery. Unfortunately, slavery has existed for thousands of years and continues to exist even to this day. We’ve been hearing a lot lately about a global human/child trafficking ring. It is estimated that worldwide today there are between 20 million and 40 million people in modern day slavery. It is a $150 billion a year business, $99 billion of which comes from commercial sexual exploitation – yes, you heard me correctly. That is more than the sports and music industry combined!! Globally, an estimated 71% of enslaved people are women and girls, while men and boys account for 29%. I can only imagine how God feels about that!
According to our history books slavery ended in the United States more than 150 years ago with the conclusion of the Civil War and the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. Although these events ended the open selling of human beings, according to the National Center of Missing and Exploited Children, two thousand children go missing every single day in the U.S. alone. That’s 800,000 children vanishing every year. Not to mention that since the onset of Covid the number of exploited children has increased by 30%.
Church family, children, yes, our precious children, at the average age of 13, are being bought and sold for sex, right here and right now in the U.S. It pains me greatly to say that the U.S., a country that we would like to think of as being highly civilized and a Christian nation is the number one producer and consumer of child pornography.
Not to mention that Ohio is right smack dab in the thick of this. According to the Central Ohio Rescue and Restore Coalition, human trafficking is going strong in our state. Shockingly, the FBI has identified Toledo as “the top U.S. recruitment city for trafficking children into the sex industry.” Toledo! Just a hop, skip and a jump away from us. This is evil at work, pure and simple. Please don’t turn your back on this situation. I know we don’t even want to think about these truths, but our kids need us! Please pray for them! Please get involved in any way you can.
Now back to Acts – the freedmen were from many different Hellenistic areas. Cyrene was the chief city in Libya and North Africa. Alexandria was the capitol of Egypt, and 2nd only to Rome in the Empire. Two out of five districts in Alexandria were Jewish. Cilicia was a Roman province in the southeast corner of Asia Minor adjourning Syria. Tarsus, the birthplace of the apostle Paul, who is about to enter the picture in Acts, was one of it’s principal towns. The men arguing with Stephen were from several different locales.
However, aside from being a good administrator Stephen was also a powerful speaker. When confronted in the temple by the various groups Stephen’s logic in responding was convincing. This is clear from the defense he made in front of the Sanhedrin. Now we are going to hear his speech and his defense in chapter seven.
But just to give you an idea, he presented a summary of the Jews own history and made powerful applications that stung his listeners. During his defense, I wonder if Stephen realized he was speaking his own death sentence.
There were two charges made against Stephen. Speech against the temple and speech against Mosaic law. Regarding speech against the temple, he basically declared that the worship of God was no longer to be restricted to the temple as Jesus himself told the woman at the well in John 4:21-24. Jesus says, “Woman, believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in Spirit and in truth, (in other words, heart and mind), for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”
As far as speech against Mosiac law, this would have aroused resentment among those who revered Moses as the Sadducees did. If you recall, the Sadducees were very strong supporters of Moses. They refused to read any scripture beyond the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, which were written by Moses. So, in their mind, to go against Moses was a big deal. And remember the Sanhedrin, the Jewish Council, was comprised of Sadducees.
The bottom line is members of the council could not stand to have their own evil motives exposed. So, they twisted Stephen’s words to make an accusation against him. They charged him with attacking the temple, the law, Moses and, ultimately God. We know the accusation was bogus because they produced false witnesses to sustain the charges against him.
Before we end, let’s consider these passages regarding Stephen. They choose Stephen, a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit. Now Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power, did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people. These men began to argue with Stephen, but they could not stand up against his wisdom or the Spirit by whom he spoke. And finally, our passage ends with this verse: All who were sitting in the Sanhedrin looked intently at Stephen, and they saw that his face was like the face of an angel.
Clearly Stephen was a vessel of the Holy Spirit. He allowed the Holy Spirit to dwell within him. He listened to and obeyed the Holy Spirit. And because he did so, he was powerful in word and deed for the limited amount of time he served the Lord.
Stephen’s life is a continual challenge to all Christians. Because he was the first to die for the faith, as we will hear in chapter seven, his sacrifice raises important questions. How many risks do we take as followers of Jesus? Do we even take any risks at all? Would we be willing to die for Him? If we lived in China right now, and we were being tortured because of our belief in Christ, would we give in to our torturers or would we stand strong in the faith? I know that’s a very difficult question to answer, because unless we are in that position, we really don’t know how we would respond. I do know that most, if not all of us, hope that we would stay true to our Savior.
But perhaps the more pertinent question we should ask ourselves is: Are we really willing to live for Christ?
Let us pray: Holy Spirit we come to you this morning and ask that you would dwell within each one of us. Help us to hear Your voice, to listen and to obey You in word and deed. May we live and move and have our being in Your power today and always.Our Father, Who Art in heaven, hallowed be Thy Name. Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day, our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For Thine is the Kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever. And all of God’s people said: Amen.Have a terrific week! Jesus loves you and so do I!