Stephen, The First Martyr — Sunday School Lesson, May 8, 2011
Acts 6-7. Listen to this week’s interview with Deaconess Pam Nielsen and Pr. Todd Wilken here on Issues, Etc.
Stephen was one of the seven chosen by the Apostles to serve as deacons, essentially, to assist the Apostles in the ministry of that early church. The Greek Christians complained that their widows were being neglected and left out of the daily distributions of food and other necessities by that early church. They made it the work of the church to take care of the poor and the needy, in their midst, caring for their daily needs.
Luke describes Stephen as a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit, full of power and grace, who did great wonders among the people. Some of the Greek converts to Judaism got into a dispute with Stephen. The specifics of the dispute are not mentioned in Acts, but Luke suggests that it had to do with Scripture and most likely Christ as fulfillment of the Old Testament and the Way to Life. These Greek converts instigated rumors of blasphemy against Stephen. They seized him and brought him before the council and elders charging him with their false accusations of teaching about Christ. Luke tells us that all who sat on the council looked at Stephen and his face was like the face of an angel.
In the midst of the council, Stephen recounted the history of the people of Israel and how it led to the rejection of Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ. Stephen does not mince words. He confronts them with the very Cross of Christ and how their rejection of the gifts given by the Holy Spirit killed the Savior on the Cross, and, ultimately, will lead to their own death. It is fitting that Luke points out that the accusations were brought by Greek converts to Judaism, for they are included in Stephen’s message. Thus, his message is not limited to the people of Israel alone, but to all people. Just as Israel was the church, God’s chosen people on earth, so too are we the church God’s chosen people. We cannot escape the accusation that we killed our Lord, nor can we shift responsibility to God’s ancient chosen people. They are still God’s special people, chosen for a purpose. God does not forget His promises. What He has in store for them remains in the council of the Godhead.
Yet what happens to Stephen should serve as a message for believers in His Church — the Word of the Cross is folly to those who are perishing. It is difficult for unbelievers to grasp, painful. It causes anger and resentment in them, but it is God working on them, a suffering that they must endure to receive faith. They will turn this anger, resentment, and wrath on us as God’s visible instruments in Christ on earth. Their pain will in turn be our pain, and we must be prepared for it. In Stephen’s case, He was stoned. The ring leader was a pharisee of pharisees, from the tribe of Benjamin. He held the coats of the men who gleefully pummeled Stephen to death with stones. As he died, Stephen was given by the Holy Spirit a glimpse of the Glory of God, with our Lord Christ standing beside the Father’s Glory. He was given the faith to pray for those who persecuted him to death. God grant each of us this faith to endure to the end.