Last week we explored how Jesus chose, trained and patiently persevered with Peter to make him a key disciple. We saw what a difference being filled with the Holy Spirit made in his life. Today we want to look at Stephen.
When we first meet him in Acts 6 he is already a believer, noted as someone filled with the Holy Spirit and marked out as a useful disciple.
For Stephen his crossroad's experience was one step further on from what we looked at last week. For Stephen it had to do with the call to Christian ministry.
Lets look at the background to this call for Stephen, and as we do, remember we have all been called to full time Christian ministry. There is no such thing as a part time Christian. Your call is as authentic and life changing as mine.
The only difference has to do with the location. Turn with me to Acts 6.
6:1-15 The Power for Christian Ministry
6:1-6 The Principles of Christian Ministry
6:7-15 The Practice of Christian Ministry
1. THE POWER FOR CHRISTIAN MINISTRY
I would encourage you to do a word study on "The Filling of the Holy Spirit" in this passage and note the number of times He is mentioned and in what context. To be full "pleres" or filled "plerousthe" is commanded in Ephesians 5:18 Its a passive verb which means as we consciously empty ourselves, as we confess any known sin and surrender ourselves to God's control, he takes over. Its also in the continuous present tense which means it is intended as a moment by moment experience. 6:3 "Full of the Spirit and wisdom"
6:5 "Full of faith and the Spirit" 6:8 "Full of God's grace and power"
Success in ministry has nothing to do with intellect, or with social background, it has nothing to do with eloquence or experience. The Holy Spirit is the source of all spiritual power and authority. Without him filling us, controlling our thoughts and actions we are nothing, we are wasting our time trying to please God or serve him.
Just as Alpha is being relaunched nationwide this autumn, so in the United States churches have been using acrostic wwjd to make people think.
WWJD stands for What Would Jesus Do. You can find it on everything from car bumper stickers and key fobs to teeshirts and ties. How do we know what would Jesus do? How do we do what Jesus would do? By being filled with the spirit of Jesus, like Stephen. The power for Christian ministry.
2. THE PRINCIPLES OF CHRISTIAN MINISTRY
2.1 THE CAUSE OF THE PROBLEM 6:1
The Church had a problem, a very healthy problem. It was growing so fast, the apostles could not do all the work. Its a fact many churches need to discover today the way they expect the minister to lead and preach, visit and pastor, pray and teach, conduct baptisms, weddings and funerals... So the church had a healthy problem - growth. But it also had 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.
Some of the widows, from outside Jerusalem, were being neglected.
The cause of the problem then was a lack of ministry. Many churches are the same. They resemble a football match. 22 members on the field wearing themselves out going in circles, while the majority sit on the sidelines looking on. We have some vacancies right now. The most prestigious and spiritual ministry in Christ Church needs one or two appropriately gifted individuals. You'll find the list on the board in the corridor. Please pray about it first though. Being filled with the Spirit is the first prerequisite. Maturity, humility, servanthood are all essential. If you think you fit the bill then please sign up to help us keep the church clean. The cause of the problem
2.2 THE CHALLENGE PERCEIVED 6:2
The Church recognised the need for ministry. They began to ask questions about strategy and delegation. Seeing a need is half way to solving a problem.
The leaders were not willing to sacrifice the ministry of preaching 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 just recognising that God had called them to fulfil a specific role and they couldn't get on and do it if they were also worrying about menus and serving meals. Sadly many ministers seem unwilling to make such tough decisions.
I know that I cannot visit everyone in our church, I cannot witness to everyone who lives in our village, so instead we are developing ministry teams to ensure that everyone is ministered to.
The cause of the problem 6:1 - a lack of ministry
The challenge perceived 6:2 - a need for ministry
2.3 THE CRITERIA PRESCRIBED 6:3
The answer was to share the ministry with others. But who should they choose? On what basis? Not how intelligent they are, not because of their political sympathies, not their wealth, not even their possible spiritual potential. The criteria the church chose were proven spiritual qualities already seen.
2.4 CALL TO PRIORITIES 6:4
There is clear recognition here that the Holy Spirit imparted gifts, differently to each one, to be discerned by the Body and then released, let loose for ministry. There was definite delegation here. Each person had their God given priorities. It was not a sign of weakness that the leaders stopped being involved in serving at tables. It was a recognition that each part of the Body of Christ has a part to play, each are needed. Called to priorities in ministry.
5. CHOICE OF PERSONNEL 6:5
The procedure is a good one. It seems the seven were picked by the existing leaders (those presumably with most maturity), but they took account of popular recognition.
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 the people. Ordination was to a specific service within the 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 spiritually for this service.
Often today's church worries more about consecrating buildings.
The N.T. church was more concerned to consecrate the building blocks of the church, that is the people... There was no distinction between clergy and laity in the N.T. They were all members of the Laos - the people of God, and they were all priests, that is members of the priesthood of all believers. (1 Peter 2:9) They were all gifted by the Holy Spirit for works of service.
This consecration or "ordination" was to set these men apart for a specific work. Notice how serious they took what appears a very boring and mundane job "waiting at tables". There does not seem to have been a distinction between the really "spiritual ministries" of preaching and the less important social functions of feeding elderly widows. Both were spiritual ministries because what matters is not what you do but the way that you do it, and for whom you do it. These men were all consecrated, that is dedicated and set apart in preparation for ministry. These are the abiding principles of Christian ministry. (Summarise the six points)
3. THE PRACTICE OF CHRISTIAN MINISTRY 6:7-15
The Consequences of their participation in the ministry of the Holy Spirit.
There were at least Eight Consequences.
3.1 GROWTH 6:7 (read)
Shared ministry led not to addition, but to multiplication.
Church growth occurred because the barriers, the restrictions were removed, and people got on with "spreading the word". No part of their ministry was neglected, therefore there was growth. Growth is natural and inevitable in something which is alive. The Church was alive! They developed a strategy to meet the needs they perceived. They developed a structure of ministry based on the principle of shared ministry and of delegation. But now notice one fundamental and very surprising thing.
From verses 6:8-15 we see that this "strategy" and this "structure" was flexible, it was adaptable, it was subordinate to the working of God's Holy Spirit.
There was no fossilised brittle institution here. There was no hierarchy of ministry. There were no stereotyped roles. Ministry was Spirit led. What we see in the following verses is the great flexibility and fluidity in the way things turned out. The Church had perceived that Stephen would make a good waiter to serve at tables. The Holy Spirit had other ideas. Stephen was going to be a powerful preacher. God blessed them because they made their structures flexible enough, and their plans secondary to the Lord's sovereign control. What I find most amazing is the way the church had the humility to recognise it. The first consequence was growth 6:7
3.2 POWER 6:8
God enabled Stephen to verify his preaching through miraculous signs.
2 Cor 12:12 tells us that this ability to perform "signs and wonders" was a unique ability of the apostles primarily, and we may deduce from this passage, those fulfilling an apostolic function such as Stephen and Philip who were consecrated for ministry by the laying on of the apostles hands. The consequences? Growth in the church and powerful signs among the people.
3.3 OPPOSITION 6:9
Stephen had stirred up a bees nest of evil. It is inevitable and unavoidable.
Your experience is far more typical of the churches experience in 2000 years than is ours in England and America.
3.4 VINDICATION 6:10
God vindicates his people. When we are obedient and witness for him, He backs us up. We have truth on our side. The church is like an anvil. It has broken many hammers that have tried to destroy it.
5. PERSECUTION 6:11-14
Because the opposition could not defeat Stephen's testimony with argument or logic, they resorted to lies and deception, physical harassment and the courts.
6. INNOCENCE 6:15
The Lord provided Stephen with the inner peace and strength he needed, probably alone, facing the hatred and venom of his persecutors. It was apparent to all that looked at Stephen that he was innocent.
7. COURAGE 7:1-53
Stephen stands out as very courageous. He faces overwhelming opposition that is prejudiced and angry. He stands in their midst on enemy territory, and probably alone. He is courageous in that he does not make excuses.
He does not give a defence. The reverse, he goes onto the offensive.
What was the source of his courage? Obviously the Holy Spirit was in control, and the Spirit gave him the words to say, but they had to have been there in Stephen's memory first. I think one of the reasons for his bold sermon is to be found in the fact that he was confident of the truth. His confidence in the truth came from his knowledge of the scriptures. If nothing else the example of Stephen should drive us back to our study and memorizing of the scriptures.
1. Stephen KNEW the scriptures. To quote them as he does he would first have had to memorize them. Do you memorise verses of scripture? They will come in useful if you ever find yourself in prison because of your faith and deprived of a bible. 7: 48-50
2. Stephen UNDERSTOOD the scriptures. To use them in his arguments about the Lord Jesus Christ, he would first have had to study them and interpret them. The length and content of his sermon indicate a familiarity with the entire plan of salvation history from Genesis to Malachi. Have you ever read the whole Bible from start to finish. I try and do so once a year. The One Year Bible makes it manageable.
3. Stephen APPLIED the scriptures to the contemporary situation and challenged his hearers with them. To do this he would first have had to apply them in his own life. 7:51-53
He showed care in his study of scripture and courage in his application of it.
8. MARTYRDOM 7:54-60
Look at the effect of his being filled with the Spirit. Stephen was able to entrusted himself to the Lord Stephen was able to forgave his persecutors.
Stephen could even pray for his killers. Stephen had been chosen to look after the widows, but the Lord made him a preacher. A special kind of preacher.
He would have only one sermon to preach.
Stephen was like a small candle that in its short momentary life showed many the way to God before it was snuffed out. And in dying it ignited a much greater fire, out of all proportion to its initial effect, indeed it started a fire that's still burning. Read 7:58b & 8:1 If there had never been a Stephen there probably would not have been a Paul. Only God knows how watching Stephen prepared Saul to put his faith in Jesus Christ. Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher once said "The tyrant dies and his reign is over, the martyr dies and his reign begins..." Are we not seeing that happen today? Hold up copy of 'By Their Blood' I want to close by telling you a true story I heard earlier this year about a young Russian Baptist named Michael. He was leader of a "cassette group" which met in secret. They studied the bible together by listening to cassette tapes of Christian speakers. It was about this time of year several winters ago that he was on his way to such a group. There were three other believers in the car. Ahead of them a coal truck had shed its load and the road was slippery. Michael's car went out of control and he was killed. A great tragedy, apparently a terrible waste of a young Christian life. But at his funeral his minister preached on the cost of discipleship. When he finished 51 people came forward to give their lives to Christ, and seven new study groups were started. More were converted through his death than through his life. Living or dying, may God use you and I as he used Stephen and Michael for his praise and glory.
In 1992 I made three visits to the new Russian republic to help coordinate part of the largest evangelistic mission in 80 years. I was responsible for helping to train Christians in Rostov on Don to share their faith....
While there I heard a true story about a young Russian Baptist named Michael. He was leader of a "cassette group" which met in secret. They studied the bible together by listening to cassette tapes of Christian speakers. It was about this time of year several winters ago that he was on his way to such a group. There were three other believers in the car. Ahead of them a coal truck had shed its load and the road was slippery. Michael's car went out of control and he was killed. A great tragedy, apparently a terrible waste of a young Christian life. But at his funeral his minister preached on the cost of discipleship. When he finished 51 people came forward to give their lives to Christ, and seven new study groups were started. More were converted through his death than through his life.