Often, it’s either our best or worst qualities which define us and get remembered. We humans are creatures of extremes, and its these extremes in character that make us aware of our need for Jesus Christ. Similarly, our extremes are often the very things God calls us to refine (sanctify) and use for His glory.
Little is known of Stephen in Scripture except that which is of greatest value. We are robbed of all but the absolute best information of this man’s life as God stamped Stephen’s character into biblical history. Acts 6:5 records that the Christian community considered Stephen to be a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit. The world could not help but notice Stephen’s love for the Lord Jesus. It was these obvious character traits which qualified Stephen to serve with what we assume to be the first group of deacons.
The Lord saw fit to enable him to be full of grace and power, doing great wonders and signs among the people (Acts 6:8). By worldly standards, Stephen was a contradiction. While used powerfully by the Lord, he was selected for serving the widows and the daily distribution of food to the needy (Acts 6:1). Take note, spiritual influence for God comes wrapped in humility and a servant heart.
As is always the case, it did not take the enemy long to recognise the Lord’s character in Stephen, and the attack began. Acts 6:9-15 details the public confrontation by evil religious fanatics’ intent on silencing Stephen. They disputed publicly with him, but they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking. Failing this, they conspired false accusations, supported by false witnesses, then they dragged Stephen into a cooked-up court. While they vented their hatred at him in court, all who sat in the council saw that his (Stephen’s) face was like the face of an angel (Acts 6:15). Praise God, Stephen did not respond in the expected way, despite the seriousness of the situation.
Acts 7:2-53 recounts Stephen’s defence speech, which turned out to be no defence at all. Instead, this courageous Christian retold Israel’s rebellious history. It was direct, and it was cutting as he confronted his opponents. You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you (Acts 7:51). Grinding their teeth in rage, they noticed as Stephen full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:55-56).
Well, that was just too much for this idolatrous bunch. Blocking their ears, they cast him out of the city and stoned him (Acts 7:58). Interestingly, unsaved Saul, later to become the apostle Paul, was present and approving of this bogus execution (Acts 7:58; 8:1). As they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 60 And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep (Acts 7:59-60). Faithfully gracious in the most extreme of sacrifices for Jesus, yet seeking forgiveness for his executioners, Stephen was ushered into the presence of His waiting Lord and Saviour.
By God’s grace, may our Saviour mould us to follow Stephen’s example of faithfulness and graciousness. May we set our minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth (Colossians 3:2), as we speak well of our Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ.