The book of Acts relates the dramatic launching of the New Testament church and its subsequent growth and expansion throughout the world. During this time, the apostles performed stunning signs and wonders—to the point that even Peter's shadow left healed people in its wake (Acts 5:12-16)! God was adding believers to the church by the thousands (Acts 2:41; 4:4).
Yet approximately seven percent of the book is devoted to Stephen, a "mere" deacon, a man ordained to "serve tables" (Acts 6:1-6). Most of the original twelve apostles received less ink. In fact, biblical historians cannot be absolutely sure where many of the apostles went to preach the gospel after that momentous Pentecost in AD 31!
What is so special about Stephen? Why is he highlighted?
Stephen's reply to the charges of blasphemy against the Temple and the law begins with a history of God's promises and deliverances of Israel (Acts 7). He candidly relates Israel's rejection of God and His prophets. The stirring climax of his reply berates them for their proud disobedience and the murder of the Messiah.
When [the Jews] heard these things they were cut to the heart, and they gnashed at him with their teeth. 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, and said, "Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!" Then they cried out with a loud voice, stopped their ears, and ran at him with one accord; and they cast him out of the city and stoned him. (Acts 7:54-58)
Why was Christ standing by His Father's throne when Stephen was stoned?
God's Frequent Disappointments
In pre-history God created multitudes of angels—creatures of magnificent power and beauty who gave great pleasure and service to God. He created three archangels of superior beauty, intelligence and power, and one of these is of particular note. He "lit up" the heavens, bringing rays of glorious light to all those who beheld him—his name was Lucifer, literally "Day Star" or "Light-Bringer" (Isaiah 14:12). He was so bright that he became enamored of himself and thought he could outshine God Himself, his own Creator!
He fell! In his pride he dared to confront God at His throne and was cast ignominiously down to the earth (Isaiah 14:13-15; Luke 10:18). Now he is called Satan the Devil, the "Prince of Darkness," Destroyer. He is "the accuser of the brethren," "who deceives the whole world" (Revelation 12:9-10).
One third of the angels over whom he ruled obeyed an angel rather than God Almighty (verse 4). Those who basked in the light of the Day Star are now held in darkness (Jude 6). Here is an example of some following an off-track leader just because he was appointed over them.
What a disappointment to God.
Subsequently, God created beings from dust in His own image (Genesis 1:26-27) and gave them temporary life so they could be destroyed if they rejected His tremendous offer of eternal life (Genesis 2:7). Ensconcing them in the ultimate "Better Home and Garden" (verse 8), He made a deal with them—they could eat anything they desired except from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, and they would live happily ever after (verses 16-17).
Almost immediately, the Destroyer offered them a "sweeter" deal (Genesis 3:1-5). And without much resistance, they hungrily accepted (verse 6). God drove them from the garden and placed an angel with a flaming sword at its entrance to bar access to the Tree of Life (verse 24). They died!
What a disappointment to God.
After the Flood, God picked out one upstanding man, Abraham, and in exchange for allegiance to Him, offered him a land of milk and honey with countless grandkids to inhabit it (Genesis 12:1-3). He gratefully accepted, as did his son and grandson. Things were looking up.
Later, this deal was offered to all Israel through Moses with the conditions of obedience and blessing—or disobedience and cursing (Exodus 21-24). They chose the former, did the latter and died in the desert (Numbers 14:20-35)! From that time forward, it was all downhill with a few notable exceptions. The children of Israel went into captivity for their sins (II Kings 17:5-23) and seemed to disappear from history (James 1:1).
What a disappointment to God.
Better Deal, Higher Stakes
Being persistent, God devised another deal with higher stakes and greater consequences—this one was for "all the marbles"! He would offer His only Son and like-kind companion as an example and sacrifice to show that the deal could work. He would prove that His own Son, made human and subject to every temptation common to man, could keep a promise.
Yet how high the stakes! If this deal failed, it was all over—the "Father" would have to live through eternity with no Son. He would no longer be a Father! Man, too, would suffer—if the Son failed, man would have no Savior and no possibility of forgiveness and eternal life.
But Jesus Christ overcame the world and the Destroyer!
He lived perfectly and offered atonement for the sins of those who would accept His upgraded deal: Obey Me and I will give you a gift—eternal life with Me and on My level! You will be what I am and what Light-Bringer wanted to be. As a bonus, I will offer instantaneous forgiveness of breach of contract (sin) through My perfect Son to cover any foul-ups.
Such a deal!
One would think everyone would go for such a deal. A few thousand did. Due to a lousy economy, all were soon asked to pool their resources that all might eat (Acts 4:32-37). Most did, but greed prevailed in Ananias and Sapphira, and they were struck dead for holding back from God and their brothers (Acts 5:1-11).
What a disappointment to God.
Would anyone but Jesus Christ yield himself entirely and totally to God with no strings attached? The apostles and brethren were yielding and obeying. Great miracles were occurring. The church was growing and expanding out from Jerusalem.
Were any of them willing to give all—even to the death—for this better deal?
The stage was set.
Enter Stephen, a man just ordained a deacon so the apostles could concentrate on spiritual matters (Acts 6:2-4). Though a "mere" deacon, Stephen was a humble servant of the people and devoted to God. God filled him with the Holy Spirit and performed miracles of faith and power through him (verses 5, 8). God used him mightily to spread the Word of God and dispute the gainsayers (verse 7, 9-10).
God chose Stephen above the others due to his yielded, submissive, serving, faithful, deeply converted attitude—much as He had David over his brothers. Rank is of small consequence to God. Contriteness and meekness are monumental (Isaiah 66:2).
God's work through Stephen offended the religious leaders of Jerusalem. They suborned lying witnesses to testify that he had blasphemed the Temple and the law (Acts 6:11-14). He did not seek an appearance before the high priest, but the Jews kidnapped Stephen and dragged him before the Sanhedrin to face the charges. At that point God, not Stephen, made the man's face appear as that of an angel (verse 15)!
Stephen knew his life was on the line. According to Jewish law, blasphemy was a capital offense. Christ knew the hearts of these men very well. He knew that if Stephen turned the tables and accused them of blaspheming the Temple of God (Jesus Christ) and law-breaking (lying, murder, etc.), they would retaliate by killing him.
The first man after Christ to be challenged with giving "his own life also" was standing front-and-center with death!
What would Stephen do? Would he compromise? Or would he stand firm?
Christ was probably too anxious to sit! He stood. With a lump in His throat and an anxious catch in His breath, with vivid memories of those who said they would but did not flashing through His mind, He stood rigidly at attention to witness Stephen's choice.
Would he shrink back or boldly stand in faith?
As Stephen stood boldly, rocks bouncing off his head, the host of heaven probably stood cheering and singing "Hallelujah!" to the Father and Son. God's Spirit and power had succeeded—in spite of Satan, in spite of man and maybe more importantly, through a man.
Why did Christ stand?
He was not disappointed this time.
He was elated!
A Living Sacrifice
Someone had finally given all for God and for the wonderful deal—the New Covenant—that He offers mankind. What a shining sacrifice and witness Stephen is! It must have impressed itself deeply upon the mind and heart of one Saul of Tarsus (Acts 7:58: 22:4, 19-20; 26:10; Galatians 1:13), who must have taken great inspiration from it after his own conversion.
Maybe the apostle Paul was thinking of Stephen when he wrote,
I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God. (Romans 12:1-2)
Not many of us at this point have been called to die as a martyr for God and His Word. Maybe some of us will be challenged with this witness in the terrible days of the Tribulation. We do not know.
But what about today? What about being a living sacrifice? Are we giving our all for God, giving our time and energy to provide a holy and acceptable service to God?
Stephen gave his life. His final act presented to the world an astounding witness of a converted, deeply convicted man who gave everything for his Lord and Master. His witness, recorded for our benefit, lives on as often as we read it or think about it.
Can we do less?