Main Idea: Luke describes the remarkable Christlike life and ministry of Stephen, whose martyrdom advanced God’s mission.
- He Was Empowered like Jesus (6:8).
- He Spoke with Unanswerable Wisdom like Jesus (6:9-10).
- He Endured a Trial like Jesus (6:11-15).
- He Preached the Old Testament like Jesus (7:1-53).
- A historical clarification (7:2-50)
- The Christological culmination (7:51-54)
- He Suffered and Died like Jesus (7:54-60).
- Two Words of Encouragement (8:1-3)
- God is sovereign over persecution.
- Jesus can save the worst of sinners.
A popular jingle rang in the heads of young basketball fans around the country in the 1990s as kids sought to imitate NBA superstar Michael Jordan: “Like Mike! If I could be like Mike!” Gatorade even resurrected the tune to celebrate its own fiftieth anniversary, reminding me that I was among those kids who sought Mike-likeness. I had the shoes and wore the sweatband on my left forearm. I had a room decorated with Jordan posters. And there I practiced flying through the air with my tongue hanging out as I dunked my Nerf basketball.
Whom did you want to be when you were a kid? Many young children grow up wanting to be like their moms and dads. One of my pastor-friends recently observed his little daughter baptizing Cinderella in the bathtub, clearly imitating the actions of her Baptist father!
Regardless of who your model was as a child, every adult Christian should seek to imitate the same model: Jesus. The goal of the Christian is to be like the Savior. Paul wrote about this pursuit in Philippians 3:10-14. Growing more and more like Jesus was his life’s aim.
In Acts 6:8–8:3 we meet a man who was as much like Jesus as anyone in Scripture up to this point: Stephen. Luke describes Stephen’s Christlike character, ministry, and death. His death, in fact, is the first martyrdom we read about in the book of Acts. Persecution began with threats. It grew to include floggings. In this passage it involves a stoning.
My focus here, however, is not on martyrdom. Rather, I hope what we are about to discuss will make each of us wrestle with this question: Do I really want to be like Jesus?
To be like Jesus does not mean simply gathering facts about Jesus’s life and then copying him, like children idolizing their favorite basketball players tend to do. We must not try to be like Jesus in our own power or imagine that we can earn salvation by copying Jesus’s words or behaviors. Rather, as Christians we must realize that we can pursue likeness to Jesus because we have been united to Jesus. Through that union with Christ we can live out Christlike lives (Gal 2:20). Through Jesus we are able to bear the fruit of righteousness. Stephen was not sinless; like the rest of us, he needed the Savior. Once he accepted Jesus, he was empowered to live a life that reflected his Savior.
As we seek to follow Stephen as he followed Christ, we must first be united to Jesus and be willing to suffer. But Stephen’s story shows us that suffering connected to honoring the Lord is worth it! As we walk in this martyr’s steps, we will note five ways Stephen points to Jesus.
He Was Empowered like Jesus
Luke begins by telling us the source of Stephen’s ministry. He previously noted that Stephen had a good reputation and was “full of the Spirit and wisdom.” He was “a man full of faith” (vv. 3,5). Here he adds that Stephen was filled with “grace and power” (v. 8). Stephen was a man filled with gifts from God.
God had poured out his grace on this man. The Spirit empowered Stephen to do ministry, which involved caring for widows, speaking and acting with wisdom, and performing signs and wonders. In this way Stephen followed the Master. Jesus was also a man “full of the Spirit” (e.g., Luke 4:1) and wisdom (Luke 2:52) and is himself wisdom (Col 2:3-4). This reminds us that wisdom is more than a set of principles; wisdom is a Person. When you are united to Jesus, he makes you wise. He enables you to make sense of this life.
Are you asking God to fill you with faith, power, and wisdom? Remember: you are controlled by whatever fills you. If you are filled with jealousy, the success of others will infuriate you. If you are filled with lust, your sexual appetites will lead you into great darkness. If you are filled with anger, you will quarrel and even murder with your thoughts. But if you are filled with God’s power and wisdom, you will live a life like Stephen demonstrated—an others-oriented, Christ-exalting life.
He Spoke with Unanswerable Wisdom like Jesus
The “Freedmen’s Synagogue” was apparently a Greek-speaking gathering comprising former slaves from various locations. The most interesting location mentioned is “Cilicia,” Paul’s home region. The Cilicia mention means the apostle probably attended this synagogue. And judging by the surrounding context, he may have been the ringleader there. At this point Saul hated the gospel. He and others disputed, perhaps for days, with Stephen. But, as in the case of Jesus’s teaching, no one could withstand Stephen’s wisdom (cf. Luke 20:40).
The power of the gospel is illustrated throughout this narrative. Consider Saul. Eventually, after his conversion and name change, he will write a New Testament theology that reflects Stephen’s sermon! In fact, it’s likely that Paul personally shared this account with Luke so that it could be recorded for the church. Moreover, in 9:29 Saul disputes with the Hellenists after his conversion, declaring that Jesus is the Christ—most likely in this same synagogue!
So, what gave Stephen such confidence? How could he stand up against this group of religious bullies? He hadn’t attended Bible college; he didn’t have a seminary degree. He didn’t even have a gospel tract to memorize. Stephen, then, could be filled with confidence for only one reason: he believed a particular promise made by Jesus. He trusted in Christ’s words, which are recorded in Luke 21:12-18:
They will lay their hands on you and persecute you. They will hand you over to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to bear witness. Therefore make up your minds not to prepare your defense ahead of time, for I will give you such words and a wisdom that none of your adversaries will be able to resist or contradict. You will even be betrayed by parents, brothers, relatives, and friends. They will kill some of you. You will be hated by everyone because of my name, but not a hair of your head will be lost.
In Acts 6–7 Stephen, Christ’s faithful disciple, is brought before religious leaders and is killed, just as Jesus predicted. But before that happens, he also experiences the other part of this passage: he is given an opportunity to share an unprepared message loaded with unanswerable wisdom.
Stephen is not the only one to whom this biblical text applies. We have already seen this reality unfold in the apostles’ witness. And we too can speak up about Christ with confidence, knowing that God will be with us when we stand before the wolves.
We should not use this text as an excuse not to study God’s Word. Stephen obviously was studied up on what it says; that’s how he was able to retell the story of the Old Testament that appears in the next chapter. At issue here is the idea that we followers of Jesus are never alone when we live on mission. So, as you seek to advance the gospel among the nations, especially when sharing with hostile individuals, remind yourself of Stephen’s witness. Pray for God to give you an ability to speak his Word with power and clarity, knowing that the sovereign Lord is with you and for you.
He Endured a Trial like Jesus
These religious bullies decide to use the “If you can’t beat them, bruise them” philosophy in their dealings with Stephen. They can’t stand up to the man’s wisdom, so they invent lies about him and haul him before a kangaroo court. What started with “opposition” in verse 9 then degenerates in verses 11-15. The men opposed to Stephen conspire against him (v. 11), create a smear campaign, cause his arrest, cause him to be hauled before the council (v. 12), and then make him face the charges of false witnesses (vv. 13-14). A read of Matthew 26:57-68 shows how Jesus endured a similar bogus trial.
Stephen was accused of speaking blasphemous words about Moses and God, demeaning the temple and the law. But in fact, in verse 15 Stephen’s face is Moses-like (Exod 34:29); moreover, his speech clearly shows honor for Moses. And at no point did Stephen use God’s name frivolously.
Stephen simply taught that Jesus was the fulfillment of the law and the temple. Jesus is the substance, and those things were shadows. Jesus said the same thing about himself (Matt 12:6; John 2:19). Thus, Stephen is a victim of the same accusation his Lord endured.
This passage is a great reminder that we must tell everyone that if they want to meet God, they don’t need to go to a temple or a building; they must go to a person, Jesus. If someone wants forgiveness, he or she doesn’t need to practice self-atonement or offer God a sacrifice of bulls and goats; all must go to Jesus, trusting in his work at the cross for salvation. As we tell the good news that Christ is the Savior of sinners and stand on this truth, we must be prepared to face opposition. We must be ready to be excluded, mocked, misrepresented, shamed, and even killed for believing it. It has always been this way, and it always will be this way until the King returns. So don’t give in to the temptation to try to make Christianity cool.
When we as Christ followers are opposed, we are facing opposition against Jesus. In putting Stephen through an inquisition, the men in this account are essentially putting Jesus on trial all over again. They want to flog and kill him all over again. Remember, Jesus promised that many will hate us as they hated him (John 15:18-26). So let us be ready for such moments, remembering that we share a powerful intimacy with God as we identify with the suffering Savior in moments like these (Phil 3:10-11; 1 Pet 4:12-19).
Verse 15 transitions to the next scene. While Stephen is being unjustly treated, “his face [is] like the face of an angel”—radiant (cf. Ps 34:4-7). It could be that his changed countenance reflected the fact that God was standing on the side of Stephen, but it could also indicate Stephen’s intimacy with God and his faithful representation of Moses. The leaders accused him of demeaning Moses, yet Stephen is reflecting the likeness of Moses—who had to cover his own face with a veil because it shone so brightly after he spent time in the presence of God. In chapter 7 Stephen teaches them how they should understand Moses.
He Preached the Old Testament like Jesus
This is the longest sermon in Acts, a book filled with sermons. It is also the last sermon Stephen preaches. His Christ-centered, Christ-exalting sermon got him killed.
Stephen’s sermon was a response to a question. The man didn’t get to stand behind a podium after some inspirational music, looking out onto an eager audience ready to receive the Word. Instead, he had to respond to an angry Sanhedrin asking him whether it was true that he had been debasing the law and the temple.
How would you respond in this situation? I love Stephen’s response. This guy knows his mission. He doesn’t try to weasel out of the predicament. He decides to answer their question in a careful, subtle retelling of Israel’s history, which climaxes with the work of Christ. Everything about his approach reflects his understanding that he is to be a “witness” (1:8), not a slick lawyer.
Some critical scholars claim this sermon has no real purpose. A few go so far as to suggest Stephen got stoned because his sermon was so bad and boring! But such criticisms miss the brilliance of Stephen’s approach.
Here’s his overall point: “I am not the one demeaning the law and the temple . . . you are!” Of course, he doesn’t lead with this statement. He gets around to it gradually by first retelling biblical history. He then tells the religious leaders that they are actually demeaning the law and the temple because they have misunderstood the nature of the temple and because they have rejected the righteous One to whom the temple points. And he adds that such rejection of a Savior is what one should expect of Israel’s leaders based on her past. The nation repeatedly rejected God’s appointed saviors.
In Stephen’s sermon the accused actually puts the accusers on trial. He tells them, “You guys don’t understand Scripture!” Of course they know some facts about it, he admits, but they don’t grasp its focal message.
Jesus often corrected the religious leaders’ interpretation of the Old Testament. In John 5 he says,
You pore over the Scriptures because you think you have eternal life in them, and yet they testify about me. But you are not willing to come to me so that you may have life.(5:39-40)
He adds, “For if you believed Moses, you would believe me, because he wrote about me” (5:46).
Stephen’s approach for making this point involves telling some microstories in view of the macrostory of the Bible. That’s good preaching! Scripture includes many narratives, but its main plotline is about God’s salvation made available through Christ.
Let’s break Stephen’s sermon into two parts: (1) a historical clarification and (2) the Christological culmination. The first part is the longest, due in part to Stephen’s getting mobbed before he could develop the second part. That section is the most indicting and is really the major point: Israel’s religious leaders have rejected God’s ultimate Savior.
A Historical Clarification (7:2-50)
In this long section Stephen essentially tells the Sanhedrin that God’s presence is not confined to a building. God’s presence has always been with his people, and that presence predates the law, the temple, and the land. He reminds them that God, by his nature, is not imprisoned in a place. Unfortunately, though, Israel often associated the presence of a temple with God’s unconditional protection of them (e.g., Jer 7:4). Stephen reminds his hearers that the great heroes of the Old Testament never imagined God was confined to a temple or felt God was obligated to bless them because of its existence. The temple was a good thing, but the people often turned this building into something it was never intended to be or to communicate.
Stephen points to Abraham, Joseph, Moses, and the monarchy (David and Solomon). The whole story line shows God being with his people in various locations, and when the temple is built, he reminds them that “the Most High does not dwell in sanctuaries made with hands” (v. 48), as the prophet Isaiah said (vv. 49-50; cf. Isa 66:1-2). Solomon himself said this at the dedication of the first temple (1 Kgs 8:27).
After opening with a respectful, heartfelt tone (v. 2), Stephen starts with Abraham and describes how God was present alongside him even in Mesopotamia(vv. 2-8). God made a covenant with this pagan and, by amazing grace, made the man the father of many nations before the law, the temple, or the nation of Israel even existed.
Concerning Joseph, Stephen reminds them of how his jealous brothers sold him, but “God was with him.” God used Joseph as a savior. All of this happened while Joseph was in pagan Egypt. In fact, Egypt is mentioned six times in verses 9-15. Was there a temple for God in Egypt? No.
Stephen describes three stages of Moses’s life, showing how God was with Moses in each spot. In stage one (vv. 20-22) Moses was “beautiful in God’s sight” and was “powerful in his speech and actions.” In stage two (vv. 23-29) Moses understood his role as a savior to the people, but the people rejected him. In stage three (vv. 30-38) God appeared to Moses in the wilderness. God spoke to Moses and declared that place was “holy ground.” Moses led the people out of Egypt and into the wilderness for forty years. Stephen draws the Sanhedrin’s attention to Moses’s teaching, with verse 37 being a prophecy about Jesus. So then, Stephen traced Moses’s career through the Egyptian, Midianite, and wilderness periods, pointing out that God was with Moses in every case.
Jesus was like Moses in many of the ways in which Stephen describes Moses. Jesus was mighty in word and deed; Jesus was the rejected Savior; Jesus gave living oracles. And Israel had a history of not only rejecting God’s appointed saviors but also of replacing God’s glory with worthless idols (vv. 39-43).
Stephen finally brings up the Israelites’ settlement into the land as well as the tabernacle and the temple. Both were constructed according to God’s will. Both were good gifts. So Stephen is not saying that the people were wrong in constructing either site, but they were wrong to think that these buildings were God’s home (v. 48; Stott, The Message of Acts, 139). Quoting Isaiah, he tells the crowd that God is the Creator, and he can’t be confined to a building.
John Stott summarizes this lengthy section well:
A single thread runs right through the first part of his defense. It is that the God of Israel is a pilgrim God, who is not restricted to any one place. . . . He has pledged himself by a solemn covenant to be their God. Therefore, according to his covenant promises, wherever they are, there he is also. (Ibid.)
This reality is highlighted by the divine initiative emphasized in the passage. God appeared. God spoke. God sent. God promised. God punished. God rescued. God is working out his sovereign will all over the earth. He most certainly is not confined to a building.
The Christological Culmination (7:51-54)
In this climactic part of the message Stephen tells his audience that they are actually the lawbreakers, and they have rejected the righteous law fulfiller.
Using the language of the prophets and Moses, Stephen tells the religious leaders that they are just like their stubborn, hard-hearted fathers who rejected God’s Word. Like them, they are rejecting God’s gracious appeals. Stephen then rebukes them for persecuting the prophets and ultimately for killing the One about whom the prophets ultimately spoke: Jesus, the righteous One. He calls the crowd “murderers.” And in his last sentence he reminds them of the privilege of having God’s Word while rebuking them for failing to respond to it appropriately.
Stephen’s point is that the religious leaders and authorities are the lawbreakers, and they have rejected the Savior, who is himself the law fulfiller. Instead of speaking further about the temple and the law, Stephen points them to Jesus, who is the fulfillment or culmination of them both. True, someone was guilty of demeaning the law and the temple, but it wasn’t Stephen.
He Suffered and Died like Jesus
One can’t help but see the relationship between Stephen’s death and Jesus’s. The two executions are not exactly the same, to be sure, but they bear many similarities.
The angry mob gets “enraged” by Stephen’s message and, like animals, “gnashe[s] their teeth at him” (7:54; cf. Job 16:9; Ps 35:16). Instead of responding to the man’s message in humble repentance, the self-righteous are outraged by it. But, like Jesus, Stephen has a heavenly perspective prior to his death. Stephen can view death positively because of heavenly realities. As the wolves prepare to attack, Stephen catches a glimpse of heaven (vv. 55-56).
Many have attempted to explain the idea of Jesus’s “standing” instead of “sitting” at the right hand of God here; “sitting” is the most frequent expression used to describe his exalted position. So was this a sign of Jesus’s honoring Stephen, as when the faculty stands at a graduation for PhD students? That scene is always a moving display of honor considering all the hardworking student has endured. Was it a sign of Jesus’s welcoming and receiving Stephen, like a host who welcomes a beloved family member into his home? After all, when someone you love but haven’t seen for a while comes to your place, you do tend to get up and greet him with joy. And if that person is a soldier who has been fighting in a war, your welcome will be even more dramatic! I, for one, want to believe that both of these are true. Clearly Jesus is acknowledging Stephen before the Father in heaven, just as Stephen acknowledged Jesus before men on earth. Jesus is thus advocating for Stephen. And this vision of glory empowers Stephen and enrages the wolves even more.
A riot ensues at this point in the narrative. No formal verdict is given against Stephen. No further questions are asked of him. Instead, this group that includes religious elites transforms into a lynch mob. The only semblance of justice in what happens is that he gets stoned in the presence of witnesses and is removed from the city beforehand. There the attackers lay down their garments, like baseball pitchers removing their jackets to throw the ball more effectively. These they lay at the feet of a young man named Saul (7:58).
In this whole narrative the only opponent mentioned by name is Saul (also in 8:1). He is at the head of the whole ugly scene. And according to 22:20, Saul never forgot this moment.
Our brother Stephen endured a horrible death. People were hurling rocks at him, and he eventually died from the many blows they landed to his head. But before Stephen passed away, he offered prayers to the Lord Jesus, his words reflecting the prayers Jesus prayed to the Father while suffering on the cross (vv. 59-60). This beautiful truth helps us see how one filled with the Spirit lives and dies. Stephen asks Jesus to welcome him home, and then Stephen prays for his murderers! Only people who know the forgiveness of Jesus at a deep level can offer such grace.
Now don’t miss this. Saul himself would become the answer to Stephen’s prayer! Saul would soon find forgiveness through Jesus. He would become an undeserving recipient of the martyr’s request that this sin not be held against those responsible. Saul, further, would go on in Romans 12 to argue for leaving vengeance to God.
Following his Christlike prayer, Stephen “fell asleep.” Did you know that for the Christian death is like sleeping? The use of this metaphorical description here reflects a sense of peace we shouldn’t miss. And it reminds us that while Stephen fell asleep in this life, he awoke in glory. For as sure as he suffered and died like Christ, he was guaranteed to be resurrected like Christ. So when you go to sleep tonight, think about this text. Greet tomorrow morning with your resurrection future in mind.
Two Words of Encouragement
God Is Sovereign over Persecution
While the church rightly grieved over Stephen’s death (v. 2), God used it to advance his redemptive purposes. Because of persecution, in fact, the church scatters outside of Jerusalem (v. 1) and evangelizes in the regions mentioned in 1:8. The enemy could not thwart the purposes of God. So take heart, Christian witness. While suffering may be inevitable, God’s mission is unstoppable.
Jesus Can Save the Worst of Sinners
Saul approved of Stephen’s death (v. 1), and his rage escalated to the point that he went through “house after house,” “ravaging” the church, dragging away men and putting them in prison (v. 3). He “was still breathing threats and murder against the disciples” in chapter 9. Consider his anger and hostility, but then remember the amazing way Jesus would transform him. In some translations, in fact, chapter 9 has this heading: “The Conversion of Saul.” Only a miraculous change could take the guy that’s the terrorist in one chapter and turn him into the evangelist of the next.
Marvel at this good news. And pray persistently for those outside of Christ. Speak this good news faithfully. Because having experienced the transforming grace of the same Jesus we serve, Paul the former persecutor wrote, “This saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance: ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’—and I am the worst of them” (1 Tim 1:15).
After a remarkable season of emphasis on missions, the Austin Stone Community Church eventually sent more than one hundred people overseas with the goal of evangelizing unreached people groups. One of the travelers was a young man named Ronnie Smith. Ronnie looked like many young leaders in a local church: he was young, bright, funny, and passionate about following Jesus. He was also gifted. But though he received offers to take leadership positions at other churches, Ronnie and his bride determined to go all the way to dangerous Bengazi, Libya, to make the gospel known.
Later, in a conversation between Ronnie and a pastor friend, Ronnie was asked whether he thought things had escalated in that country to the point that it was too dangerous for him to remain in Libya. To this Ronnie replied, “It feels to be home . . . there is literally no other place on Earth that we would rather be. Nowhere” (Shaw, All Authority, 7).
That pastor soon described what happened after that discussion:
[A] black Jeep circled Ronnie several times as he was on his daily jog in his neighborhood in Benghazi, Libya. The two Libyans in the Jeep pulled up to a car stopped nearby. “Is that the American?” they asked. The man smoking and waiting in the car said, “Yes. He lives here and he’s a good man.” Ronnie had lived in Benghazi for nearly a year teaching science to Libyan high school students. He loved working in education as it gave him the opportunity to pour into the lives and aspirations of Libya’s next generation. The black Jeep circled back to Ronnie. A quick word was exchanged and then the Libyan men emptied six bullets into Ronnie’s chest, killing him instantly. Ronnie’s wife and two year old son had returned two weeks before to the USA for their Christmas holiday. Ronnie died on Dec. 5, 2013, one week before he was to join them. (Ibid.)
Many in the media wondered why a guy like Ronnie would move to hostile Libya in the first place. But all of heaven knew exactly why he did it: Ronnie Smith was following Jesus. Like Stephen, Ronnie didn’t set out to be a martyr. He set out to be like Jesus, but sometimes Christlike living leads to Christlike dying.
Suffering will sometimes be inevitable as we determine to follow Jesus in the work he desires that we do, but the great news is that the King’s mission is unstoppable. Jesus is building his church, and neither bullets nor rocks can prevail against it! May God grant us grace to follow Jesus faithfully until we, like Stephen and Ronnie, fall asleep. In the moment we open our eyes to see the glorified Savior, we will know that living for Jesus is worth more than any sacrifice.
Reflect and Discuss
- From where did Stephen receive power?
- How are the Spirit and wisdom related?
- How is Jesus “greater than the temple”?
- What impresses you most about Stephen’s sermon?
- Could you narrate the Old Testament story that culminates in Christ if someone asked you to do so? If not, begin a reading plan that includes Genesis, Exodus, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, and Matthew.
- How does the vision of Christ’s standing at the right hand of the Father encourage you?
- What about Saul’s involvement in these matters most resonates with you?
- What is your reaction to Stephen’s willingness to forgive his murderers? Do you need to forgive some people in your life? What advice would Stephen give you?
- How does Stephen’s story inspire you?
- How does God display his sovereignty in persecution?