Study 9: Stephen’s authority in Jesus – Acts 7
Stephen was full of God’s grace and power, and did great wonders and miraculous signs among the people. He was also full of the wisdom of God. It is worth reminding ourselves of the events that led up to the arrest of Stephen, because in doing so we can understand some of the things that we as Christians will face during our lives. We will be misunderstood, lied about, we may face physical or mental oppression; we will be persecuted to a greater or lesser degree. Jesus said to His disciples, and therefore to us:
‘Remember the words I spoke to you: no servant is greater than his master. If they persecuted Me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed My teaching, they will obey yours also. They will treat you this way because of My Name, for they do not know the One Who sent Me’. John 15:20-21
We may face opposition from people within our own churches and from our own loved ones, (friendly fire) but there is one thing that we must never forget – Jesus goes through all that we go through as we go through it, because He promised: ‘Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; He will never leave your nor forsake you’. Deuteronomy 31:6 And again in Hebrews: ‘God has said, ‘Never will I leave you, never will I forsake you’. Hebrews 13:5 So finally after all the accusations and false testimony before the religious groups, Stephen is taken before the Jewish Supreme Court where the charges are repeated. They couldn’t take their eyes off him as his whole face changed with a mixture of authority and love – it became like the face of an angel.
Read Acts 7:1-53.
There is no record of how long the Court sat motionless – in suspended animation – but suddenly, the voice of the High priest shattered the silence. ‘Are these charges true?’ he asked.
If you or I were to be arrested and brought before a court accused of being a Christian, would the prosecution find enough true and verifiable evidence against us to enable the jury to convict us?
In response, Stephen was bold. He did not simply respond with a one word answer, but took his opportunity to explain to his listeners, the authorities – the highest and most learned religious men of the land – the message of the Gospel and where they fitted in! He started with Abraham. This was a key point, because the Jews regarded Abraham as their father, and traced their lineage back to him. After all, Abraham was the father of Isaac, who was the father of Jacob whose twelve sons were the forefathers of the twelve tribes of Israel – a fact of which each member of the 70-strong Sanhedrin was very proud, in fact they could not be members of that august body of people without being able to trace their family back to the patriarchs, (see graphic from Lesson 07 about the twelve tribes). John the Baptist had the same run-in with the authorities as he prepared the way for Jesus, Matthew 3:7-9
This is also a good place for us to start. Sometimes we need to re-cap on some of the Old Testament events that fundamentally defined our own Christian heritage so that we can dig our roots deep into solid and fertile stability. Abraham and the men of the Old Testament through whom God demonstrated His power and faithfulness will act as anchors for our soul (mind, will and emotions) if we diligently explore their characters and what made their relationships with God work. God appeared to Abraham while he still lived in Mesopotamia (in Ur, to be precise) and offered him an exceptional opportunity. ‘The Lord had said to Abram, ‘Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you. Genesis 12:1-3
The definition of a blessing is ‘an instrument through which God’s divine favour flows bringing joy and happiness and preventing misfortune in the life of another’.
In order to become a blessing, Abram had to do certain things. He had to leave behind all his earthly security – his home, his nation and his family – and go to a foreign, and therefore unfamiliar, country the location of which he had no idea with only the promise of God Himself as his security. It is one thing to go with a job an income and housing, but a different thing altogether to go with no concrete arrangements in place. God has spoken to men and women down the ages with the same promises. Some of these men and women were and are missionaries. They were prepared to die for the sake of the Gospel, like Hudson Taylor who went to China and was the first to make a breakthrough into the indigenous Chinese people; Jackie Pullinger who has been used by God to reach the drug users of Hong Kong’s walled city; like Jim Elliot who went to the Auca Indians of the South American rainforest and who saw no converts during his lifetime, but when he was killed by them for his faith, the entire community opened wide to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Reinhard Bonnke who went out from Germany and has seen over a million people become Christians in a single meeting in Africa. Amazing blessings in this life and in eternity sometimes at the ultimate cost of life itself.
Abraham initially went with his father to Haran where he lived until his father died, but when he was alone, God moved him to the land that his descendants would possess. God told him that these descendants would be foreigners in a land belonging to other people who would make them slaves and ill-treat them, and that after 400 years they would be delivered and would finally take possession of the land God had promised them. God made a Covenant with Abraham of which Circumcision was the seal. This Covenant was recognised by Abraham’s son Isaac, then by Jacob as he circumcised his children, the fathers of the twelve Tribes of Israel. Moses almost died because he did not recognise it as he went back to Egypt to lead God’s people out to the Promised Land, and Zipporah saved his life by obeying God’s command, Exodus 4:24-26
A covenant is a legally binding agreement between two parties, sealed in blood and made for the mutual benefit of each party. Usually this covenant was made for the mutual interchange of strength for example (in Abraham’s time), if I had a strong personal bodyguard or even a private army which was renowned for protecting me and you were an excellent sheep rancher with more food than you could use, then we could enter into a covenant so that where you were weak (in protection) I would make you strong; you would call on me for protection, and in return you would supply me and my army with food
When we ‘cut’ that covenant, we would each cut our hands, then clasp them together, so mingling our blood, then rub dirt into the cuts so that they would heal scarred as a perpetual witness to the covenant. This covenant would last for the remainder of our lives, and if one of us failed under our covenants, we could lose our lives because of it. God entered into such a covenant with Abraham. We can read about this in Genesis 15 where God promised him a son and too many descendants to count. Abraham asked God how he could know that this would be true, and he saw a flame pass between the carcasses of a heifer, goat and ram along with a pigeon and a dove. ‘18 So that day Jehovah made this covenant with Abram: “I have given this land to your descendants from the Wadi-el-Arish to the Euphrates River. 19-21 And I give to them these nations: Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaim, Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites, Jebusites.” Genesis 15:8-21 Now Abraham knew that this was true. He no longer worried about who would inherit his wealth. He might have tried to ‘help God out’ as he couldn’t see how God could give a child to a couple as old as he and Sarah were, but he now believed that God would do as He promised and God considered Abraham righteous because of his faith.
‘Abraham believed God and He credited it to him as righteousness’. Genesis 15:6
When you and I believe God and become Christians, God enters into a Covenant with us. The Covenant is the New Covenant, not sealed with the blood of bulls and goats, but ‘cut’ and sealed in the Blood of Jesus, His own Son. It can never be broken, because if it were to be, then God would not be God; He would have broken His part of the Covenant. Therefore when He said to Paul, and therefore to us and every other believer down through the ages: ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore, I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults and in hardships, in persecution, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong’. 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 We just give Jesus all our weaknesses and He gives us His strength. Just as the Covenant was effective for the generations following Abraham, so is the New Covenant effective for us and our children, if we will just believe it. Moses had thought so little of his covenant that he had not thought to circumcise his children, Exodus 4:24. We too must believe what God has said to us in order for it to apply to us, and to our children.
9 ………I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, 10 but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love Me. Exodus 5:9-10
Joseph’s brothers were jealous of him, as he told them about his dreams from God so they sold him into slavery. God did not deliver him from this trial, just as sometimes He does not deliver us from our trials, but He went through it with him and used it to strengthen Joseph’s character for the task that was ahead of him. He had much to learn about God if he was to be Egypt’s second in command to Pharaoh.
Joseph had no idea why he was going through the trials he was until one day – in fact one meeting on one day – he discovered that God’s call was and had always been on his life. He must have thought back over the years to remember the dreams he had as a child of his family bowing down to him, when his brothers and finally his father came to Egypt to escape the famine. God will speak to you, too. And when after a few weeks what He has said has not yet happened, but life is much more difficult for you, remember what happened to Joseph, how he must have longed to be out of slavery, then he was appointed head of Potiphar’s household. He must have believed that his freedom had arrived – the peak of his career – not so bad working for someone else for the rest of his life!
Then just as he was settling into the job, he was falsely accused and taken back to prison. He worked his way up and interpreted the baker’s and butler’s dreams, and asked for a good word to be put to the king on his behalf when the butler was restored to his role, but he forgot about him, and as day succeeded day, Joseph must have believed that prison was his for the rest of his life. Until ONE DAY!
God will be faithful if you will believe Him. Never forget what He has promised you. Hold on to it, Acts 7:17
Before God fulfilled His promise, there was a population explosion amongst His chosen people. This was a sign that the promise was about to be fulfilled. When Jesus returns for His Church – this is described as His second coming – He is returning for His Church – a Church (the Body of Believers) that is described as ‘glorious’ and ‘the Bride of Christ’, Ephesians 5:25-27. This will not be a few Believers barricaded in to their churches for fear of the world. It will be a Church that has the power and authority that Jesus left behind as a present to His Bride to be used to combat the deceit and lawlessness of Satan, and totally following the Word of God.
After Joseph’s job was done and all his family were safely in Egypt, a new Pharaoh arose who did not remember what Joseph had done for his country. He oppressed them and enslaved them. He forced them to kill their new born baby boys because he feared that they would turn on him and take over the country. Of course, Satan knew what God’s promise to Abraham contained: that the people would be delivered after 400 years. And Satan can count; the time was now here for the baby boy to be born who would be the deliverer of God’s people! The only way to prevent that from happening was to kill him. But Satan can never and will never overcome God. So against all the ‘odds’, Moses was born and grew up. He was adopted into the very household God would destroy, as Pharaoh’s grandson, and taught to the highest standards of the world system, Acts 7:20-22
Moses knew what his destiny (life’s work) was – to deliver his people from the Egyptians. We don’t know how he knew, but one day when he was visiting his fellow Israelites, Acts 7:23-25. Moses had to flee and went to Midian. Here, he settled down as a shepherd (a far cry from being a prince at the Court of the most powerful nation in the world). He married and had two children and probably believed that he would end his days in obscurity; that he had messed up and ‘blown’ his calling.
What about you. Has God spoken to you in the quietness of your heart and you have wondered at what He said? Have you given up hope of it ever coming to pass? Or have you tried to do something about it only to discover that the whole world seems to have come crashing down on you! Perhaps you were not so bold as Joseph or Moses as they openly shared what God had told them. Remember that God will fulfil all His promises at the appropriate time. Do NOT give up, but do not hurry Him.
Then ONE DAY forty years later…… God appeared to him in the burning bush. Now was the time for God’s people to be set free and now was the time for Moses’ calling to take effect! Romans 11:29
This was definitely God’s appointment, and he was the man who led the Israelites through the Red Sea and then through the Desert for forty years. This was no easy task; the Israelites complained and demanded to go back to Israel.
When the pressure is on us, how often do you and I wish that we were headed back to the security of the place that we have just left? When God asks us to step out for Him, we often go with great enthusiasm, but when things become difficult, we wonder if we have heard right; we wonder if we have done things in our own strength. It is at times like these when we should focus on the promises God gave us when he called us and ‘Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I strain to reach the end of the race and receive the prize for which God is calling us up to heaven because of what Christ Jesus did for us’. Philippians 3:13-14
The Israelites didn’t. They longed to go back to the slavery they had in Egypt, so God handed them over to the real desires of their hearts – to forget about Him and to worship false gods.
Read Acts 7:39-43.
Every man and woman who came out of Egypt with the exception of Joshua and Caleb died in the desert and never entered the Promised Land. Even though they had the very Presence of God on earth with them in the Tabernacle, they had the Pillar of Cloud by day and the Pillar of Fire by night, they turned their back on Him and gave up on their own high calling. Never turn back! Never take your eyes off the promises of God. He will complete what He has started in you if only you will let Him!
Now Stephen rounded on the Sanhedrin as being the people God had placed in the positions of authority. He likened them to their ancestors. Stephen was not one to hold back. So far as we are told he was the first man in the church to die for his faith. Many others would follow him through the two thousand years since then, and many throughout the world are still prepared to, and do now, lay down their lives for Jesus. He did not mince his words, and there are times when you and I need to stand up for Jesus. Acts 7:51-53
The result was predictable, Acts 7:54-57. Notice two things here. The first point is that Stephen looked up to heaven and saw Jesus standing at the right hand of God. The Bible tells us that when Jesus ascended into heaven he sat down at the right hand of God, Mark 16:19. So what made Him stand up? I believe that it was Stephen’s authority in the Name of Jesus. He spoke with absolute clarity to the Sanhedrin, and as we are bold and courageous about the Gospel, so Jesus stands and encourages us, and if ever we die for our faith, we would see heaven before death came. Death would therefore merely be a change of state as we looked into the loving face of Jesus. The second point is this: they covered their ears. They didn’t want to hear any more. The world will never want to hear any more. But Jesus will honour us for our faithfulness.
Now we begin to transition into another phase of the growth of the Church. Saul, who became Paul after his conversion describes his Jewish credentials in Philippians 3:4-11. He was a pure-blooded Jew from a branch of the old original Benjamin family; he was circumcised at eight days old. He was a member of the Pharisees who demand the strictest obedience to every Jewish law and custom, and he greatly persecuted the Church, but he threw all this away so that he could put his trust and hope in Christ alone.
Saul looked after the clothes of those who stoned Stephen and approved of his death, but Stephen prayed while he was being stoned, ‘Lord Jesus receive my spirit.’ And ‘Lord, do not hold this sin against them’. Often God uses the most aggressively contrary characters; such was the case with Paul. We shall see how this man was the very one whom God chose to convey His message of reconciliation to the Gentiles.
Stephen was a man who wanted to be used in whatever God was doing. He was humble enough to wait on tables and administer the food program. Because he was right in the centre of his calling, God could, and did use him to focus the hearts of the people in such a way that the Church expanded and did what it should have done for a while – go out into Judea and Samaria and the uttermost parts of the earth. Are you in the position where God can use you to focus the Church on what it should be doing?
Study 9: Stephen’s authority in Jesus – Challenge Questions
1. Read the Notes and the Bible Verses referred to in them. Highlight the points that ‘speak’ to you.
2. What evidence is there to be presented before a court of law that shows you are a Christian?
3. What do you think about the potted history that Stephen gave to the leaders including their responsibility of killing Christ? Do you think this was wise? Give reasons for your answer.
Read Acts 8:1-40
4. Who buried Stephen? When a Christian dies, why is it right to mourn, but right to celebrate at the same time?
Read Acts 1:4-8.
5. What had Jesus said to His church that they should do, and what had they done instead?
Read Mark 16:15-20.
6. What has Jesus told His church to do? Are we achieving what He asked us to do? Explain your answer.
7. Why do you think the church was persecuted at this time? What type of persecution did they undergo?
8. What was the result of this persecution? Do you think Satan would have been happy with his work?
9. When Philip fled Jerusalem, where did he go? What could those who fled NOT help doing? Do you think they were effective?
10. As the result of Philip speaking in Samaria, what event happened? List three things that identified exceptional things were happening in Samaria. Should we be seeing these things happening today when God’s Word is preached?
11. Do you believe that God could use you in a wider capacity than your home church? If so, describe how you think God has spoken to you and where you believe He wants you to go?
12. What did Simon the sorcerer think of himself? Did everyone agree? Did he listen to Philip, and what was the result in Simon’s life?
13. Peter And John were sent from Jerusalem to Samaria. What was their purpose in going? What did they do that changed the lives of the Believers there?
14. What amazed Simon so much after he had been baptised? What did he offer for this ability? What did Peter say to him, and why? What was the result in Simon’s life?
15. Why did Philip leave Samaria? Did he know why he was going when the Angel asked him to go? Why is obedience important in the life of a Christian?
16. If God asked you to something that was inconvenient, and for which you did not understand the reason, would you do it?
17. Who did Philip eventually meet? Did he expect to meet a famous man? How did Philip advise him?
18. What was the result of Philip’s advice? Was the eunuch happy with the events of the day? How long do you think both men remembered their meeting? Why?