Filled with the Holy Spirit, Stephen gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.
As I get going here, I’d like for you to start thinking about something…
What does honor mean to you?
And what does it look like to you to live an honorable life?
Today’s text from Acts has, for a long time, been one of my favorites in all of the Bible. There’s something really special about Stephen’s boldness and faith that, I believe, sets the tone for how we should live.
But this word, “honor,” is one that really stands out to me as I examine the life (and death) of Stephen.
Before we get too deep into that thought, I want to take a little step back and take a look at how we got to this place with Stephen.
Stephen Was Called To Serve
Acts 6 starts us off with this idea that while the ministry was growing, essentially, it isn’t as effective as the disciples had hoped. Primarily because certain needs weren’t being met. So they gathered and put together a plan to get seven people, “of good standing, full of the Holy Spirit and of wisdom,” to take care of these needs.
And Stephen was among these seven.
As they (the deacons) were anointed to do their work, we see in Acts 6:7 that, “The word of God continued to spread; the number of disciples increased greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith.”
There are two things I notice here:
- That having people devoted to serving in the way of the deacons had an incredible impact on the ministry. It’s not just about the deacons alone, and it certainly wasn’t just about Stephen. But the power of the impact that happened at the table-level was worth Luke mentioning in part of this story.
- The fact that “a great many of the priests” began turning to faith in Christ is notable. Not only does it show the power of what was happening in this new church, but it’s something that would’ve begun to anger other religious leaders at that time. And that’s about to turn into a big deal!
In a sense, Stephen was merely modeling the heart of Jesus who taught us by washing his disciples’ feet that leading is best accomplished by serving others.
Stephen Operated With the Holy Spirit
Acts 6:8 tells us that, “Stephen, full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among the people.”
I appreciate the words of Deacon Kim, who last week reminded us that, “There is no limit to what the Holy Spirit can do through people.”
Stephen knew this, and we see how the work Stephen did was possible because of his connection with the Holy Spirit, and allowing Him… allowing God… to do the work He wanted to do in people.
That’s why it’s SO important that we strive to connect with the Holy Spirit in every aspect of our lives, and listen to His voice.
Recently with the youth, we had what we called the “BE Prayer Experience.” What we did was set up various prayer stations around the campus, each with a different focus to “be” something… be reverent, be loved, be courageous, and so on.
By the end of the evening, one of the youth shared with the group that, “I always knew I was a Christian because I come to church and youth group, but after tonight, something just feels different.”
I also know through other conversations with that youth that there was a specific experience when they likely actually heard some things from the Holy Spirit. It was small, but it was HUGE.
And that’s why I’ll always continue to schedule events and activities like that where our youth are finding ways to hear from God through study of the Word and prayer…
As we all should.
Basically, we see Stephen, guided and empowered by the Holy Spirit, modeling the work of Jesus by going around healing and ministering to people in whatever needs they had.
Stephen Stood for Justice
When Stephen spoke, he spoke with authority. Chapter 6 verse 10 tells us that, “they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he spoke.”
So they accused him of blasphemy and twisted the truth to get him arrested and brought before the council.
And when the council asked him, he blasted back with a response that outlined where God had been working throughout history. All to point out that they are missing God’s move today.
He saw the religious elite sitting around in their fancy robes and missing the point of what God was doing in people’s hearts on the street level, the very people he was called to serve in his ministry as a deacon.
It reminds me of the lyrics in one of my favorite 80’s rock songs, “Something To Believe In” by Poison…
I drive by the homeless sleepin’ on a cold dark street
Like bodies in an open grave
Underneath the broken old neon sign
Used to read “Jesus saves”
A mile away live the rich folk
And I see how they’re livin’ it up
But while the poor they eat from hand to mouth
The rich are drinkin’ from the golden cup
And it just makes me wonder
Why so many lose and so few win
Give me something to believe in
Give me something to believe in
If there’s a Lord above
Give me something to believe in
Likewise, one of my favorite authors, Wendell Berry says:
“The honorable work of this world is done by people who are not so consumed with the desire for success that they forget the importance of doing what is right.”
This is where Stephen was. He was being wrongly accused by the religious elite, and he stood up to them in defense of the work God was doing in the poor, the orphan, the widow, and all of the people in need of a Savior.
Yet, standing before his judge on this earth, he doesn’t back down, knowing that what he’s doing is the right thing.
In fact, his speech reminds me somewhat of Jesus tossing tables in the temple, just weeks prior. Again, Stephen is simply modeling his Lord.
The Martyrdom of Stephen
And that’s where we get to our reading from today, which starts with this:
“When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen.”
To set the scene, he just ruffled a bunch of feathers and everyone was sitting there grumbling. And then…
“But filled with the Holy Spirit (there it is again), he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.”
This is significant, because every other reference in the New Testament about Jesus in the Heavens has Him seated at the right hand of the Father. So the fact that Jesus was standing is extremely important.
And he told this to the people who were there, remember, still before the council.
When he told them this, verse 57 tells us that, “they covered their ears, and with a loud shout rushed together against him.”
The fact that they covered their ears is an indication that they knew what it meant. There are several instances throughout the Old Testament where they see that God “stands” in judgment, anger, and wrath.
So what they were essentially doing is their version of (insert fingers in ears)… “LALALALALA! I CAN’T HEAR YOU! LALALALALA!”
Jesus Honoring Stephen
There are typically two types of instances when royalty stands… out of anger and out of honor.
And while there certainly may have been some anger involved, as the other religious leaders likely expected, it was Stephen who saw this vision.
So I have to suspect that it was more along it being a sign of honor Jesus was showing towards Stephen.
And this was happening BEFORE the stoning actually started. It wasn’t until AFTER all of this that he was dragged off to be stoned.
But I’m sure Jesus knew what was happening. He would’ve known that His faithful servant Stephen was about to take this all the way.
It’s kinda like when I’m watching a Tampa Bay Buccaneers game and they’re down by 6 points in the final minute of a big game, and then I see the long bomb getting thrown.
I’m probably on my feet in excitement, probably before that ball is even caught. And I’m screaming… and cheering… and thinking… “HE. COULD. GO. ALL. THE. WAY!”
And that’s like what Jesus is watching. He’s watching Stephen as he’s about to take this all the way.
For the first time in His Church.
And there’s Jesus standing in honor of what Stephen has done, and what he’s about to do.
Then as he’s being stoned, Stephen models Jesus one more time…
“Lord, receive my spirit.”
“Lord, do not hold this sin against them.”
In his life, and death, Stephen modeled his Lord all the way. And Jesus saw it all. And He stood in respect and honor for a job well done.
At the risk of sounding cliche, the path to being honored and respected is, as Stephen showed us, to do what Jesus would do… the classic “WWJD.”
Listen (especially youth)… there are SO many models and influences that we look to. We see sports figures, actors and actresses, influencers on YouTube, TikTok, Instagram and wherever. I had a conversation with several youth who talked about how amazing “Mr. Beast” is, and all of the good stuff he does with the millions he makes on social media.
I would say that our most likely path to greatness, respect, and honor isn’t to try to be like Mr. Beast, or Lebron, or whoever else we might admire. It’s by imitating Jesus… just as Stephen did.
THAT, my friends, is the path we should take.
I’ll close with this… our collect for the week says, and I pray…
“Almighty God, whom truly to know is everlasting life: Grant us so perfectly to know your Son Jesus Christ to be the way, the truth, and the life, that we may steadfastly follow his steps in the way that leads to eternal life; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”
Artwork credit: The Stoning of Saint Stephen ivory and bone plaque (The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland)