Bible Passage: Acts 6:8-8:1a
So far in the story of Acts there has been a gradual build up of opposition from the Jerusalem authorities. As the message of Jesus has been preached, apostles have been arrested, warned, threatened and beaten in an attempt to stamp out the proclamation of the gospel. This effort was unsuccessful and the gospel spread, with the number of disciples increasing greatly and even many priests putting faith in Jesus. In this passage we see the opposition reach a new level as we get the account of the first Christian martyr. Stephen was one of the men chosen to oversee the food distribution and he was full of the Spirit. Here we see a crowd stirred up against him and he is arrested and brought before the counsel. When giving his defence, Stephen doubled down and preached through the history of Israel showing that God’s messengers have always been opposed and persecuted. In response, Stephen’s accusers were incensed and stoned him to death.
Stephen’s Arrest: The beginning of this passage introduces us to Stephen as a man and we see a model of somebody worthy of emulating. He has already been described in verse 3 as full of the Spirit and of wisdom and this is reiterated again in verse 10. Verse 5 also tells us of his faith, verse 8 mentions that he is full of grace and power and did signs and wonders among the people. This description of his character is significant as it shows that we should not attribute his arrest to anything he had done wrong. This was persecution for the sake of righteousness. Stephen living in a way that honoured God and it was because of this that he was opposed. As believers we should understand that opposition may come, and should not flinch from living faithfully to the gospel when it does.
Stephen’s Defence: As Stephen began his defence to the council, his face shone like an angel, showing that the Spirit was helping him as he spoke. His sermon is lengthy and you will probably want to summarise some parts and read others rather than read all of it. His theme is that those who God has called have always faced opposition, and he shows this from Abraham’s descendants being opposed by surrounding nations, Joseph being opposed by his brothers, the Israelites being opposed by the Egyptians, Moses being opposed on multiple occasions by fellow Israelites, and the people worshipping the golden calf. Stephen’s conclusion is that every prophet has experienced persecution, and those now opposing the gospel are doing just what their ancestors did. This is a sermon that does not hold back and in it Stephen shows courage and clarity that can challenge how we respond when pressure for the gospel comes.
Stephen’s Death: In 7:54-8:1a we see Stephen’s death. It was the way Stephen spoke in his defence that further infuriated his oppressors, but we are left in no doubt that the way he spoke was pleasing to God as Stephen was granted a vision of heaven open, where he saw the glory of God and Jesus at his right hand. As the people stoned him to death, Stephen echoed two prayers that Jesus had prayed on the cross, asking the Lord to receive his Spirit and praying that those who were killing him would be forgiven. A very brief mention is given to somebody who will play a major role as the story of Acts progresses. Saul (aka Paul) was there and was looking after the coats of those who stoned Stephen and approved of what they did.
- Ask people to reflect on what we have learned of the character that the Spirit has created in Stephen, and reflect on the extent to which they see the same in their own life. You could invite people to spend time asking the Spirit to work in them in a similar way.
- Invite people to think about how they respond when they face pressure for their faith. You could create a moment in the service where you offer to pray for anybody who is in such circumstances at the moment.
- Pray for the persecuted church. Many believers around the world are facing the risk of arrest and death for following Jesus, just like Stephen. This would be a great time to stand with them in prayer