Sunday, June 8, 2008

Stephen: Boldness- Acts 6:1 - 8:3

Is there a name that stands out as one of the boldest Christians that you know? There is not just one, but many that have crossed my path that is eighty three years old and heavily traveled. There is always danger when one starts naming names—the danger comes from two directions—some will be named that the readers will not agree with and then there is always the danger of leaving out the very one that deserves recognition most. Danger or no danger, I must recall a few that are from our church family that stand out as bold Christians.

Pat Sowell, was one of this church’s stalwart defenders, he and his wife made this a better church and his super care for others is just now being tested. Walter Aldridge, with all his personal health problems and the loss of his wife has remained God’s picture of what a Christian should be. Gene Cartwright has had more than one of life’s supreme tests and passed with one of God’s top scores. Mary Gachot has born more than her share of life’s sorrows and still remains willing to give her best to her church. D. J. Haney left us a family of supporters as his gift to this church. Betty Keeter and Kay Lambert were two of the most wonderful keepers of the faith and an inspiration to all of us. Louis Lee stands out as a young man that is completely dedicated to God’s will for him and finally there is John Barber, older and willing to spend so much of his time helping others who have needs. {I know. I left you out, and you deserved to be mentioned.}

The writers of the NT left out several names that were eligible to be mentioned as bold and fearless Christians when they zeroed in on Stephen, but they could not have found anyone that would have better fit the mold. We pray for The Lord’s return before any of us has to prove our faith by paying the price that Stephen paid. It is our prayer also that the example that Stephen left will inspire us to exhibit boldness in our life for Christ.

Do you realize why the church always seems to be embroiled in some kind of problem; like the one that cost Stephen his life? Problems, difficulties and set-backs are surely not new. It started with the first church that was established by Christ while He was on earth; and that church had problems because its membership consisted of a bunch of sinners saved by grace who still had the old sin nature that started in the garden with Adam and Eve. The apostles were among the first members and if you will read about their walk with Christ, you will find that He was continually correcting them and admonishing them about both their thoughts and actions. It is important that your grasp this truism; though not perfect, there is no doubt that Christ was proud of his twelve chosen apostils by the time of this writing. He does not require us to be perfect; just perfectly willing to worship and serve Him.

During the period covered by Acts, about 30 to 60 AD, a great number of Hebraic Jews and Grecian Jews had joined the church. During those days the life of a Christian was no bed of roses, primarily because of the opposition of the Sadducees and the Pharisees and their supporters…The same crowd that had crucified Christ. One of their main concerns was that they had to be self-supporting and many were poor people, even to the point of needing food. The early church had to resort to a plan where those that had wealth had to share a part of it to care for those who had nothing. A common fund was established which was administered by the church leaders, primarily the apostles, to help those with the greatest needs and this was generally the widows and children.

Who was this man, Stephen? He was one of the seven first deacons that were called and set aside to handle the distribution of a fund that was established to take care of the Grecian widows who were thought to be left out of the distribution of the common fund. The majority of the church was made up Jewish converts. The Greek members accused the Jewish Christians of being unfair in the distribution of aid to the Greek needy. Accepting the doctrine of Grace and faith, the Jewish leadership authorized the appointment of the seven new deacons that would be responsible and all of those chosen had Grecian backgrounds.

Stephen was one of the seven leaders that were chosen to guarantee fairness.
He was known as one with spiritual qualities of grace, faith, wisdom, and power because of the presence of the Holy Spirit in his life. Stephen was an outstanding leader, teacher and a great debater…You need to read his message in chapter seven delivered in his own defense. HE WAS AN ORATOR. And he was the first member of the early church that gave his life as a martyr.

Baptists believe that deacons are called to serve tables; and those tables are the tables of the poor [as represented by the widows], the table of the Lord’s supper when it is practiced in remembrance of the body and blood of Christ sacrificed for sinners, the table of the church which serves members physically and spiritually and the table of the Pastor, when his load is heavy and he needs prayer and support to do his work in the church.

It is obvious that Stephen was strong in his beliefs and leadership and his ability to defend his faith. Chapter 7 is too long for me to go into verse by verse, but YOU REALLY SHOULD READ THIS CHAPTER, you can easily understand what he is telling the Sanhedrin court, especially where they are failing to follow the very law that they are claiming to uphold. The first organized opposition came from the Synagogue of the Freedmen. This group was made up of a group of imprisoned Jews that had been set free by the Roman courts and formed their own synagogue in Jerusalem, and their primary allegiance was to the Pharisees and Sadducees who were in power in the temple and other synagogues of Jerusalem. The charge against Stephen was that he was speaking blasphemy against Moses.

There is no way to know for sure just how many people of all nationalities had joined the new church movement by the time that Stephen got into trouble. It appears from the writing that the group at this time was made up of Jews and some Greek…and there could have been a few others. One thing is obvious and that is that the movement had not moved very far beyond the walls of Jerusalem.

It already appears to most of us that the arrest, trial and stoning of Stephen was another charge that could be laid at the feet of the Jewish leadership. If we read no further than chapter seven, we could never understand why this event had to happen. God works in mysterious way, some that we never understand; but we can be sure that no Christian has ever been ask to give more for the cause of Christ than He was willing to give for us.

This tragic moment in the life of the church—epitomized by the death of Stephen marks a new beginning in the life of the church that may not have happened had this event never happened. Three of the greatest new movements resulted. God used this man and his sacrifice to start the spread of the Gospel into the entire world. Think through this on your own and you may be able to understand that we should never be in doubt about our worth as we sacrifice ourselves to God’s plan.

1. The church started in the upper room in Jerusalem. Then it begins to spread over the city as the apostils traveled about preaching and teaching. Peter and John are an example as they went to the temple to pray and healed the lame man on the way. No doubt they had already gained many converts, but all lived in the city and had no reason to move. They were still not loyal enough to Christ to just decide on their own that they should leave home and go to another nation to witness. So God made it happen.

On the day that Stephen was stoned to death, Godly men buried Stephen and mourned deeply for him and a great persecution broke out against the church at Jerusalem. Now the wrath was not just against Stephen and the apostles, but it included each and every one that had professed to know Christ. The lives of families were threatened to the point that every one except the apostles were scattered throughout all Judea and Samaria,

2. As a result of the persecution, hundreds, maybe even thousands of foreign missionaries are on the field in other nations. We could even think that the first missionaries were forced to go to other nations; God used an evil deed to bring about a good cause.

3. Saul was at the stoning…stood by and watched. But Saul began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off men and women and put them in prison. No wonder they had to leave town. Some that got away had moved to Damascus and while Saul was on his way there to arrest them and bring them back for imprisonment—he met the God that Stephen knew. Can we assume that Paul remembered the stoning and it helped him recognize the voice of God and his call that resulted in the birth of a new Apostle and the greatest of all missionaries? Can we assume that the death of Stephen gave birth to the missionary program?

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