Who wouldn’t want to be described with terms like humble, bold, wise and fearless? Think about it. Don’t we all strive to be modest, kind, nice, strong, knowledgeable, smart and courageous? This one man, briefly mentioned in the New Testament, was all of that and then some. It cost him his life. ♦
There’s a fascinating story near the beginning of the Book of Acts in the New Testament that gets a lot of press because of the significance of the event and its gruesome nature. A man named Stephen was stoned to death by an angry crowd and thus becomes the first Christian martyr killed for his beliefs in very early days of the burgeoning new Church.
It was not your average situation. And he was not your average man.
In truth we know very little about Stephen, the man, apart from what we read in the 6th and 7th chapter of the Book of Acts, that companion volume to the Gospel of Luke which continues the story of the Christian movement from the resurrection of Christ to the Apostle Paul’s arrival in Rome some 30 years later. While the name is Greek (from Stephanos), he was most likely a Jew, perhaps a Hellenistic Jew who spoke Greek and adopted Greek customs.
Humble – He lowers himself to serve others
Stephen is selected as one of 7 “men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom” to administer and supervise the distribution of property and charity of the early Christian collective. (Acts 6:1-6) As there was evidence of neglect of Hellenistic Jewish widows (v1), [What? The early Christians weren’t perfect?] Stephen and 6 others were sympathetic to the cause of the Church community and willing to submit to authority and let the 12 apostles do the implied more important role of preaching: “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables.” (v2)
So right away we see that Stephen is recognized by his peers (v3) as a capable and respected Godly man, tender-hearted, selfless and humble. By the way, the title of Deacon, which came to be linked with their function, derives from the Greek verb meaning “to minister.”
Bold – He speaks truth to power without hesitation
As the word of God increased, the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were obedient to the faith. (v7) At the same time, Stephen, now a leader himself, spoke full of grace and power, [and] did great wonders and signs among the people. (v8) He was confronted by people in the Hellenistic Jewish synagogues, who could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke. (v10)
He did not refrain from boldly speaking the Word of God, particularly arousing the ire of Jewish traditionalists who did not grasp the expiring of the old Mosaic law by way of the new High Priest, Jesus, and a new eternal temple replacing the physical one of stone before them. (v14)
Furious with him, they conspired to destroy him and instigated false charges and witnesses. They seized him and brought him before the council of the Jewish priestly class. (v11-13)
Wise – he is knowledgeable of detailed historical events and context
The man was unfazed. In fact, gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel. (v15) It is clear, particularly with what he said next, that God filled him truly like a man filled with the Spirit of the living God.
For the next 50 verses, Stephen gives the council a profound Jewish history lesson:
- Stephen reaches back to the beginning of the Jewish era starting with God’s call to Abraham and the promise of the land of Israel to his descendants. (Acts 7:2-5)
- He describes God’s prediction of the enslavement of his descendants ill-treated as aliens in a land for 400 years. (v6)
- He describes God’s judgment on that imprisoning nation [Egypt]. (v7)
- He speaks of the covenant of circumcision and the line of descendants: Isaac, Jacob and his 12 sons. (v8)
- He describes the 11 sons’ jealous actions against their brother, Joseph, who is sold into slavery in Egypt, yet with God’s hand finds favor before Pharaoh the king who made him governor over all of Egypt. (v9-10)
- He retells the story of the great famine in Egypt and Canaan and circumstances which led Joseph’s father and 75 members of his family to make their new residence in Egypt under the protective authority of Pharaoh and Joseph. (v11-16)
- Then he speaks how over time the sons of Jacob grew and multiplied in Egypt until there arose a new Pharaoh who did not know Joseph, his family, and their history. He sought to destroy their infant sons. Moses survived. (v17-22)
- He speaks then of Moses rise to leadership of the Hebrews and his encounter with God in a burning bush: “I am the God of your father, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” (v23-35)
- He then speaks of many signs and wonders of God through Moses who delivers his people from Egypt and 40 years in the wilderness before Joshua leads them into the promised land and eventually David’s son, Solomon, builds the Temple of the Most High. (v36-50).
He finishes with a flourish, labeling his accusers as “stiff-necked people” (the same as the stubborn historical Hebrews), “uncircumcised in heart and ears, [who] always resist the Holy Spirit.” (v51) He reminds them of their fathers’ persecution of God’s prophets and own betrayal and murdering of the Righteous One (Jesus Christ). (v52)
Fearless – He does not shrink from fear of punishment or even death
The Jewish leaders were enraged when they heard these things, particularly at Stephen’s strong conclusion. He had no fear as they rushed together upon him, cast him out of the city and stoned him. (v55-58) In fact, as they were stoning him, Stephen prayed “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And he knelt down and cried with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep. (v59-60)
Stephen, a Model for Us
Stephen was but a man, however a man modeling Christ-like characteristics memorialized now in the Biblical text. He was recognized by those around him as gentle and humble, yet fiercely bold and in possession of wisdom that could articulate clear historical actions and relevant context. And though this boldness ultimately cost him his life, he died fearless in the light and knowledge of who he was and who was His God.
Are you like Stephen: humble, bold, wise, and fearless?
“Devout men buried Stephen, and made great lamentation over him.” – Acts 8:2