Today we celebrate the day of Pentecost when the Holy Spirit was poured out on the disciples, 3,000 people converted and the church was born. That story is in Acts 2. From then on the book of Acts is saturated with the Holy Spirit. Many have suggested that it should not be called the Acts of the Apostles but the Acts of the Holy Spirit.
We are not going to look at the day of Pentecost but an example of the life of the church from very soon after Pentecost.
Maybe 3 or 4 years after Jesus’ ascension and Pentecost a dispute broke out. The church was distributing food to widows but the Greek-speaking Jews complained that their widows were being overlooked. The apostles knew that their calling was to the ministry of the word and prayer, not to distributing food. It would be wrong for them to try to do this as well. Far better to delegate it. Involve more people. Recognise the diversity of gifts and ministries. So the apostles said to the church, “Choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.”
So, the church chose seven men, including someone called Stephen.
The apostles had been very clear about the type of person who should be chosen. They were to be men (and we are not going to go into that just now) who were to be known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom.
Why? All they were going to do was distribute food! This is a pastoral care role. Why was it crucial that they be filled with the Holy Spirit and wisdom? And what does it mean anyway? And they were to be known as people full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom. Apparently, this was something that people could readily recognise. What makes it apparent that a person is full of the Holy Spirit?
And, what does this say to us? Should we require exactly the same thing? Before we put anyone into a ministry role in the church, should it be apparent that he/she is full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom?
I hope we can answer those questions as we look at the story.
Acts 6:7 So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith.
The ‘so’ at the beginning of that verse tells us that the growth was a result of the appointment of these seven men. That could be because they defused a developing division and maintained unity in the church. I think there was great wisdom in addressing the complaint and finding a solution that involved delegating ministry to others. But I think there was far more to it than that, as we shall see.
The story then focuses on Stephen. Who was he? Who knows? But look at how he is described in 6:8: Stephen, a man full of God’s grace and power… performed great wonders and signs among the people.
We know that he had to be a man full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom. Now we get a picture of what that means. He was full of God’s grace and power.
God’s grace is His goodness, His generosity, His provision, His willingness to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. We are saved by the grace of God. It is pure gift. We cannot earn it ourselves, God gives it generously. We are protected and guided by God’s grace. We are equipped by God’s grace for His service. So was Stephen receiving God’s grace in an abundant way or was he modelling God’s grace and conveying God’s grace to others in an abundant way? Was God blessing him or was he blessing others?
Undoubtedly both. Those who receive God’s grace are expected to pass it on. Jesus said, “You have received freely, therefore give freely.”
He was performing great wonders and signs among the people. Clearly, he was receiving God’s grace. He could not perform miracles by himself. God was doing great things. God was graciously working through him. But Stephen was not just receiving. He was extending God’s grace to others. People were experiencing God’s grace through Stephen. Presumably people were being healed and delivered of demons; prayers were being answered. Probably it mirrored Jesus’ ministry.
Even in talking about God’s grace, we have started talking about God’s power. Stephen was full of God’s power. Jesus had said, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth.” Clearly that was happening exactly as Jesus had said. Stephen was simply a meals-on-wheels deliverer but he had the power to perform great wonders and signs because of the Holy Spirit in his life.
Let’s revisit the questions we asked earlier. Why was it so important for these men to be full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom? When they delivered food, they obviously ran across all manner of other needs. People were sick. People had demons. Marriages were strained. People needed jobs. Whatever. They could not just drop the food and run. There were opportunities here to minister to hurting people and for people to witness the power of God. Stephen could not identify those needs and respond to them without the help of the Holy Spirit. Dealing with these things requires God-given wisdom. Stephen needed to be receiving the grace of God if he was to minister the grace of God.
It actually says that he performed great wonders and signs “among the people”. That could just be the widows in the church but it sounds to me as if he was out in the community doing these things. Perhaps the widow who needed food told him of her neighbour who was dying.
If people are going to minister in the name of the church, they should not be non-Christians or even powerless Christians. Even pastoral care, or social service, roles require people filled with the Spirit.
How would they identify who was filled with the Spirit? Maybe it required only a simple question: Can you see God at work? If someone is healing the sick, it is pretty apparent. If someone speaks with an unusual authority such that people sense God speaking, that is pretty apparent. If someone’s character is being transformed – they are increasingly demonstrating the love, or the patience, or the compassion of Christ, it shows. The apostles said, “Choose people in whom, and through whom, you see God at work.
Stephen’s story continues. People got angry. They did not want people being healed or set free by Jesus. They opposed Stephen, arguing against him. But, v.10 says that they could not stand up against the wisdom the Spirit gave him as he spoke. His words had Holy Spirit authority and logic.
They brought him before the Jewish Sanhedrin and made accusations against him. When they looked at his face they saw that he had the face of an angel. This again is the presence of God and the grace of God.
Stephen then made along speech. Most of chapter 7 is a recitation of the history of Israel from the calling of Abraham to the captivity in Egypt, to the exodus under Moses, to the giving of the Law at Mt Sinai, to the conquest of the Promised Land to Solomon’s building of the Temple. But that is a story of regular disobedience and Stephen finished by accusing the Jewish leaders of being stiff-necked and resisting the Holy Spirit, just like their ancestors. They had even killed all of the prophets. And now these people had betrayed and murdered the Righteous One, God’s Messiah. What incredible courage to speak so boldly! That was a Holy Spirit thing as well. This is not natural.
Not surprisingly, they were furious. Then Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, looked up into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. Is that not, again, the grace of God? The Holy Spirit was powerfully at work, although when he said what he could see, it made them even more angry! They dragged him out of the city and began stoning him. Being battered to death, Stephen prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit” and then, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Then he died.
How do you pray prayers like that – a prayer of peaceful trust in God and a prayer of forgiveness for those killing you? They echo Jesus’ prayers on the Cross. Stephen had a Christ-like character. The Holy Spirit had been moulding his character and, at the time of death, gave him peace and compassion.
Today is the celebration of the gift of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Stephen’s story illustrates what Pentecost meant. The early church was a Holy Spirit-filled church. This is what it looked like.
What do you think this was like for Stephen? Would it have been exciting being part of the life of the church, ministering to people, seeing miracles happening and lives changed? Do you think he went home at night and lay in his bed and gave thanks to God for all that he was seeing and was able to be part of? Do you think the Spirit-filled life was a source of constant joy? Even dying didn’t seem to terrify him. He was faithful to Jesus and courageous and, at the end, had a God-given peace. God was good. Stephen knew the grace of God in multiple ways.
There is even a particular blessing in suffering for Jesus. Just a couple of verse before chapter 6, we read, “The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name.”
This has to be an invitation to us. This is the church as God designed it. I guess that most of us would say that we are not seeing God at work today in the same way that Stephen’s story illustrates and we ask why not. And yet I am sure He wants to fill us with His Spirit in just the same way. What do we need to do?
How did Stephen get to be a man full of God’s grace and power? I am guessing but I suspect.
1. He wanted it
Maybe he had seen this in Jesus and in the apostles and he wanted it. Who wants it? Who hungers for it?
Again, we do not have information about Stephen specifically but prior to Pentecost, we read that the Christians all joined together constantly in prayer (Acts 1:14).
We should be on our faces, crying out to God to know more of His grace and to be able to extend more of His grace to others.
Truthfully, if we want to see our church be anything like the New Testament church, we should have many, many people at our prayer meetings, praying passionately. Could we? Could that be the catalyst for us experiencing far more of the grace of God?
Be faithful in little things. Stephen was willing to do a fairly menial job but discovered that God was opening more and more doors for him. He went through those doors and God used him in a far greater way.