Stephen: The Price of Following Jesus

In 1948, a young 21 year old Wheaton College student named James wrote in his journal, “I seek not a long life, but a full one, like You, Lord Jesus.” A year later, against all advice, he became convinced that God was calling him as a missionary to  Ecuador. That year he wrote in his diary, “He is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.  Jim spent most of 1952 in Quito, Ecuador, learning Spanish and orientating to a new culture.. Since college days he had been fascinated by a remote Stone Age tribe known as the Aucas. Jim knew that they had a deserved reputation for killing anyone, Indian or white, who dared to intrude into their land. Nevertheless he began praying for them. In September 1955 a pilot with the Mission Aviation Fellowship, Nate Saint, spotted from the air a small Aucas settlement…[1]

On Sunday morning January 8th 1956 Nate went up alone and spotted a group of Auca men walking towards their camp. He flew back to the beach with the good news and radioed their wives. “A commission of ten is coming. Pray for us This is the day.” Together they all sung the hymn:
 

We rest on Thee, our Shield and our Defender,
Thine is the battle, Thine shall be the praise.
When passing through the gates of pearly splendour.
Victors, we rest with Thee through endless days.

A few years earlier aged just 23 Jim Elliott had written

 “I must not think it strange if God takes in youth those whom I would have kept on earth till they were older. God is peopling Eternity, and I must not restrict Him to old men and women.” 

 

Jim and his four mission partners Nate, Ed, Roger & Pete were indeed called home that Sunday, to “people Eternity”. Refusing to use their weapons in self defence, they were slain by the people they had sought to befriend.  We have been preparing for Easter by reading again the story of the early Church and how God, then as now, is building his new community on earth in preparation for heaven. Today in the story of Stephen we learn the price of following Jesus. Luke divides the brief ministry of Stephen into four parts. I want us to focus on the first and the last.

 

Stephen the Servant (Acts 6:1-7)

1. The Cause of the Problem  6:1
The Church had a problem, a very healthy problem. It was growing. Growing fast. In times of success, it is easy for us to maintain the status quo, but this is dangerous.


Henry Ward Beecher called success “a last-year’s nest from which the birds have flown.” Any organization that thinks its success will go on automatically is heading for failure. We must regularly examine our lives and our ministries lest we become complacent and start taking things for granted.  Growth is a healthy problem to have. But it can lead to an unhealthy problem - neglect. Because the apostles couldn’t do all the work, some people were complaining that there was selective favouritism in the care of widows.

The cause of the problem.

1.2 The Challenge Perceived  6:2 

Where one person may see a problem, another will see an opportunity. The opportunity to examine our selves and discover whether changes are required. Challenges can be welcomed for they make us ask questions about strategy, mission and delegation. That is why the PCC spends much of its time thinking and praying about the future. That’s why yesterday we brought in a church growth consultant to help us consider how to deepen the spirituality of our church. Seeing a need is half way to solving a problem. The apostles were not willing to sacrifice the ministry of the word in order to cook the meals for the widows.  They were not saying "we are too important to do that lower kind of task."


They were simply recognising that God had called each of us to fulfil a specific role and they couldn’t prepare their sermons if they were also worrying about the menus and serving meals. Sadly many ministers are unwilling to take such tough decisions.   Why were the Apostles to concentrate on the ministry of the word? Because this is how the ministry of the whole church is facilitated. How?
Paul tells us in Ephesians.

    “It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fulness of Christ.”  (Ephesians 4:11-14)

 

So the role of the pastor teacher is to equip the church family to do the ministry. But when a church expects a handful of paid employees or the vicar to lead and preach, counsel, visit, pray and plan what happens?  Pastoral care will be neglected.  But the flip side of this is a more subtle neglect. The quality of the preaching will also go down. And so it becomes a vicious circle.  The cause of the problem 6:1 - a lack of ministry. The challenge perceived  6:2 - a need for ministry.

1.3 The Criteria Prescribed   6:3 

The answer? Share the ministry.  But how and on what basis? Notice they did not select people on the basis of academic ability, or social standing nor even potential. 

What were they looking for? People who were full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom. In Scripture, to be “full of” simply means “to be controlled by.” We are all controlled by something. It may be our pride, lust, materialism, fame, fortune or it may be Jesus. Jesus was Lord of Stephen’s life because Stephen was a servant of Jesus. The church chose people who were known to be wise and Christ like. As you consider who to nominate for election to the PCC, please read carefully the insert in the news sheet the role and responsibilities. But the one indispensable qualification for any church ministry is here in verse 3. Spiritual maturity and wisdom.  The criteria prescribed.

 1.4 The Call to Priorities  6:4 

The Holy Spirit has imparted different gifts to each person. Each person should use what ever gift he has received for the building up of the Church. It was not a sign of pride that the leaders stopped being involved in the lunch club. They simply recognized that they must prioritise and delegate those ministries for which they were not gifted. We have all been called to Christian service. 


In the letter I wrote inviting you to become a member of
Christ Church there was also a leaflet explaining the opportunities for Christian service. The assumption of the New Testament is that we have each been gifted by God to serve him. If we are not using our gifts some aspects of the ministry will be neglected. So if you consider yourself a member of Christ Church, please pray about where God would have you serve. There are more copies in the corridor if yours got recycled. At the moment we have 325 adult members and around 120 employed in some form of ministry. For many churches that is a very high percentage. But it means we have around 200 unemployed Christians. Imagine the impact on our community if we had another hundred people on a regular basis visiting and caring for the sick, the elderly, single parents, the bereaved, the unemployed. Imagine if we had another twenty gifted people leading our Sunday school and youth activities. Imagine if we had another ten gifted musicians in the music group, another five managing  the admin, the magazine, the rotas and hall bookings, another five on the cleaning team. The list is endless because the opportunities are unlimited. The question is are we called to serve or be served?
Are we using the gifts God has given us? My goal is full employment. Nothing less.

If you are not sure where your gifts lie here is a simple test. Pick up the Annual Church Report and look at the contents page. Which page do you turn to first? Why? Last week I used the illustration of Eric Liddell the Olympic runner. When he was asked how he could be a Christian and waste his life running, he said this. “God made me a runner. He also made me fast. And when I run I feel his pleasure.” Do you feel his pleasure in what you do? Would you like to? Its your birthright. And when you serve him using your gifts you feel his pleasure. In the Autumn we shall be running the Network Course again. Its designed to ensure we are serving in the right places for the right reasons. If you can’t wait that long, order a copy of Bruce Bugbie’s book “What you do best in the Body of Christ” from the bookstall. Summarise.

1.5. The Choice of Personnel 6:5  

The procedure is a good one. It seems the seven were recommended by the leaders but recognized by the wider church family. Discernment and affirmation. That is how we elect members of our PCC. We invite nominations and then the whole church family decides at the Annual Parochial meeting in three weeks time 20th March. That’s why its so important for you to be there. The formal business part of the evening is short but vital for the future of the church. Please make it a priority. You won’t want to miss it. The call to priorities and the choice of personnel.

1.6 Consecration in Preparation 6:6

This is the nearest we get to ordination in the N.T.  Ordination was not to a special position above people.  Ordination was to a specific service for people.  These seven didn't become a special class of Christians. Through prayer and laying on of hands the church offered them to God and asked Him to equip them for this service. This is in part the reason for our confirmation service in May. Yes it will be a public declaration that as adults they want to follow Christ. But its also a public affirmation that they want to serve Christ where ever he leads. If Jesus is my saviour he is also my Lord.  Both preaching and cooking are  spiritual ministries because what matters is not what we do but how we do it.  We have all been called to serve. These are the abiding principles of authentic Christian ministry.  What was the consequence? The church was unified (6:5), multiplied (6:7), and magnified (6:8). You know there is a world of difference between addition and multiplication.

Recruit a good speaker or a dynamic musician or a caring pastor and you can easily add people to a church. But if we want to see multiplication we need to take these principles seriously. We rejoice that we have seen growth this year. But with it has come new challenges. The challenges we face as a church over personnel, over buildings and strategic planning also give us, like the early church, opportunities to exercise our faith in the Lord, but also faith in each other. The leaders suggested a solution, and all the members agreed with it. The assembly selected seven qualified men, and the Apostles set them apart for ministry. We commonly call these seven men of Acts 6 “deacons” because the Greek verb diakoneo (“serve”) is used in Acts 6:2. But the word simply means “a servant.”

 

These seven men were humble servants of the church, men whose work made it possible for the Apostles to carry on their theirs of teaching and training the church to win, build and send.  Acts 6:7 is one of several “summaries” found in Acts that let us know that the story has reached an important juncture.  Luke describes the climax of the ministry in Jerusalem, for the persecution following Stephen’s death will take the Gospel to the Samaritans and then to the Gentiles.  A biblically functioning church is a serving church. Stephen the Servant.


2.
Stephen the Witness (Acts 6:8-15)

2.1 Authentication  6:8  

Because Stephen was a servant he was also a witness. God enabled Stephen to bear witness to the leaders of Israel through signs & wonders just like the Apostles. Stephen’s powerful testimony would be the climax of the church’s witness to the Jews. The consequences?

2.2 Opposition  6:9 

Stephen had stirred up a hornets nest of evil.  It was as inevitable and unavoidable then as it is today if we are faithful in our witness.
 

2.3 Vindication  6:10 

However, nobody could match or resist Stephen’s wisdom and power (see Luke 21:15). Their only alternative was to destroy him. God vindicates his people. When we are obedient and witness for him, He backs us up.
 

2.4 Persecution  6:11-14 
Because they could not defeat Stephen's testimony with  argument or logic, they resorted to lies and deception, physical harassment and persecution. It was not even necessary for Stephen to speak in order to give witness. The very glow on his face told everybody he was a servant of God. Certainly the members of the Sanhedrin would recall Moses’ shining face (Ex. 34:29-30). It was as though God was saying, “This man is not against Moses! He is like Moses—he is My faithful servant and witness!” But because they refused to heed Stephen’s message, he became…

3. Stephen the Judge (Acts 7:1-53)

This is the longest address in the Book of Acts and one of the most important. In it, Stephen reviewed the history of Israel and the contributions made by their revered leaders: Abraham (Acts 7:2-8), Joseph (Acts 7:9-17), Moses (Acts 7:18-44), Joshua (Acts 7:45), and David and Solomon (Acts 7:46-50). But this address was more than a recitation of familiar facts; it was also a refutation of their indictments against Stephen and a revelation of their own national sins. Stephen proved from their own Scriptures that the Jewish nation was guilty of worse sins than those they had accused him of committing. What were these sins? I can only summarise them today.

3.1 They misunderstood their own spiritual roots (7: 1-8)
3.2 They rejected their God-sent deliverers (7: 9-36)
3.3 They disobeyed their Law (
7: 37-43)
3.4 They despised their temple (
7:44-50)
3.5 They stubbornly resisted their God and His truth (
7:51-53)

This is the climax of Stephen’s speech, the personal application that cut his hearers to the heart. Throughout the centuries, Israel had refused to submit to God and obey the truths He had revealed to them. Their ears did not hear the truth, their hearts did not receive the truth, and their necks did not bow to the truth. As a result, they killed their own Messiah!  Which is why ultimately Stephen, the servant, the witness and judge became, Stephen the Martyr.

4. Stephen the Martyr (Acts 7:54-60)
You wonder what kind of a world we live in when good and godly men like
Stephen can be murdered by religious bigots! But we have similar problems in our “enlightened” age today: taking hostages, bombings that kill or maim innocent people, assassinations, and all in the name of politics or religion. The heart of man has not changed, nor can it be apart from the grace of God. What were the results of Stephen’s death?

4.1 For
Stephen, death meant coronation
Stephen saw the glory of God and the Son of God standing to receive him to heaven (see Luke 22:69). Our Lord sat down when He ascended to heaven (Ps. 110:1; Mark 16:19), but He stood up to welcome the first Christian martyr.

4.2 For the Church, Stephen’s death meant liberation
Until now the gospel had only penetrated Jerusalem and Judea. God would use this dispersion of Christians resulting from persecution to bring the good news of Jesus to the Samaritans and Gentiles. Coronation. Liberation.

4.3 For Saul, Stephen’s death meant salvation
Paul never forgot the event (Acts 22:17-21), and no doubt Stephen’s message, his prayers and death prepared Saul for his own encounter with the risen Lord (Acts 9). God never wastes the blood of His saints. God may not call us to be a martyr, but He does call us to be a “living sacrifice” (
Rom. 12:1-2).. And, in the words of Jim Elliot, “When it comes time to die, make sure all you have to do is die”.  One of the first things Jim’s widow, Elizabeth did  was tell their story, Through Gates of Splendour.  In the months that followed the widows returned to their work among the tribal peoples of Ecuador. Other mission partners came and continued to reach out to the Aucas.  For nearly a year Elizabeth Elliot, with her little daughter Valeria and Nate’s sister Rachel Saint, lived and worked among the men who killed her husband. They discovered why their husbands had been killed as well as the identity of their killers. “We thought foreigners would lkill and eat us,” one Auca said. Another confessed that he had cried after the killings. Each one of the killers, confessed their sin and accepted Christ. One of them, Kimo became a pastor of the Auca village.

To demonstrate their faith in
Jesus Christ, Nate’s teenage son Steve and daughter Kathy asked if they could be baptised by the Aucas. The baptisms were held at Palm Beach at dawn. Kimo, one of their father’s killers baptised Steve and Kathy along with two teenagers from the village. Near the site of the missionaries graves, the two forgiven killers, two of the widows, Marj and Rachel and the four teenagers sang the hymn which the five men had sung near that same spot “We rest on Thee, our shield and our Defender.”  That was only the beginning of the miracle. Auca believers themselves became missionaries to other long-time enemy tribes among whom, Tona, one of the six killers himself became a martyr. For the wives and relatives of the five men, the mute longing of their hearts was echoed by words found in Jim Elliot’s diary….[2] 


I am most grateful to
Warren Wersbie, Elizabeth Elliot, John Stott, and Stephen Gaukroger for much of the inspiration, outline and content of this sermon.



[1] Robert Backhouse, Christian Martyrs (Hodder, 1996), p. 278.

[2] Elizabeth Elliot, Through Gates of Splendour (Hodder, 1988), p. 188-189.