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 and 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)

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, brought before a court and accused of being a Christian, would the prosecution find enough true and verifiable evidence against us to enable the jury to convict us?

map abraham

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, that is 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. Abraham had been 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 seventy-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 the picture from lesson seven 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 Blessing

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, unfamiliar country - with only the promise of God Himself as his security. It is one thing to go somewhere with a guaranteed job, income and housing all waiting, 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. They include people 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); 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 saw over a million people become Christians in a single meeting in Africa. Such people have produced amazing blessings, both in this life and in eternity, sometimes at the ultimate cost of their own lives.

Abraham initially went with his father to Haran, where he lived until his father died. Once 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 four hundred years, they would be delivered and would finally take possession of the land that 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 had not circumscised his own son as he went back to Egypt to lead God’s people out to the Promised Land. It was his wife, Zipporah, who saved his life by obeying God’s command. (Exodus 4:24-26)

A covenant is a legally binding agreement between two parties. In ancient times, covenants were sealed in blood and made for the mutual benefit of each party. Usually (in Abraham’s time), such covenants were made for mutual support. For example, if one person had a strong, personal bodyguard (or even a private army) whilst the other was an excellent sheep rancher, producing more food than could be used by one family, then both might enter into a covenant, with one providing protection for both and the other supplying everyone with food.

The covenant would be "cut" - literally - with both parties cutting their own hands, then clasping them together, mingling their blood before rubbing dirt into the wounds, so that they would heal with scars as a perpetual witness to the covenant. This covenant would last for the remainder of their lives and, if one of them failed to keep their promise under the covenant, his life would be forfeited. God entered into such a covenant with Abraham. We can read about it in Genesis 15, where God promised Abraham a son and too many descendants to count. The covenant was sealed in a ceremony during which Abraham brought a heifer, goat, ram, dove and a pigeon, divided each one in two and arranged the halves opposite each other. Then God arranged for a "smoking brazier with a blazing torch" to pass between the pieces of the offering, thus sealing the covenant. The passage reads: "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 - the land of the Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaim, Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites and 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" because 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. In the Bible, this is known as the "New Covenant". It is not sealed with the blood of animals, 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. God reinforced this when He said to the apostle, 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." Paul's response was as follows: "I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 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." (See 2 Corinthians 12:7-10.) We give Jesus all our weaknesses and He gives us His strength.

Just as the covenant was effective for the generations following Abraham, so the new covenant is effective for us and our children, if we will just believe it. Moses had thought so little of the covenant made with Abraham and his descendants, that he had not thought to circumcise his own children. (Exodus 4:24) We should learn from this and believe what God has said to us, in order for it to apply to us and to our children. The earlier covenant came with a warning: "I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sins of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me." (Exodus 5:9-10)

Joseph’s brothers became jealous of him when 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 lay ahead of him. Joseph 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 suffering slavery and imprisonment until one day – in fact during one meeting on one day – he discovered that God had been preparing him all along to become a significant leader and saviour of his people. When his brothers (and, finally, his father) came to Egypt to escape from the famine and were bowing down before him, Joseph must have thought back over the years and remembered the dreams that he had had as a child. God may speak to you, too. 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 and must have believed that things had finally changed, that he had arrived at the peak of his career. It would not be so bad working for someone else for the rest of his life! However, just as he was settling into the job, he was falsely accused by his master's wife and taken back to prison. Again, he worked his way up and used the gift that God had given him to interpret dreams for two of his fellow prisoners: Pharoah's baker and butler. His explanations of the dreams proved to be correct and Joseph asked the butler for a good word to be put to the king on his behalf when he was restored to his role. But the butler forgot about Joseph completely and, as day succeeded day, Joseph must have thought that prison would be his fate 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. (See 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 will be returning for the body of believers that is described as "glorious" and "the Bride of Christ" (in Ephesians 5:25-27). This will not be a few believers, barricaded in 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, people who are totally following the word of God.

map midian

Some while after Joseph’s job had been completed and all his family were safely settled in Egypt, a new Pharaoh arose who did not remember what Joseph had done for his country. He oppressed the Jewish people and enslaved them. He forced them to kill their newborn baby boys, because he feared that the people 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 four hundred years. The time had arrived 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. Against all the "odds", Moses was born and grew up. In fact, he was adopted into the royal household - the very household that God would later destroy - as Pharaoh’s grandson and given the best education possible at that time. (Acts 7:20-22)

Moses eventually discovered what his destiny (life’s work) would be: to deliver his people from the Egyptians. But that process appeared to get off to a "false start" when, one day, he was visiting his fellow people (the enslaved Israelites) and finished up defending one of them by killing an Egyptian overseer. (See Acts 7:23-25.) Moses then had to flee for his life and went off 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 ever spoken to you in the quietness of your heart? Have you ever 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 have not been so bold as Joseph or Moses, who they openly shared what God had told them. Remember that God will fulfil all His promises at the appropriate time. Don't give up, but equally don't hurry Him.

Forty years later, Moses was out in the desert, looking after his sheep, when God suddenly appeared to him in a burning bush, Exodus 3:3.. The time had arrived 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. Moses was later the man who led the Israelites our of Egypt, through the Red Sea and then through the desert for forty years. This was no easy task. The Israelites complained constantly and even demanded at one point to go back to Egypt!

When the pressure is on us, how often do you and I wish that we were headed back to the security of the familiar 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 heard Him correctly. We wonder if we have simply been doing things in our own strength. It is at times like these when we should focus on the promises that God gave us when He called us and imitate the apostle Paul: "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 quickly forgot God. They longed to go back to the security of the slavery that they had experienced in Egypt. Consequently, God let them have their own way. They forgot about Him and began to worship false gods and idols.

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" (the meeting tent that Moses set up); even though they saw the pillar of cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night (representing God's physical presence with His people), they turned their backs on Him and gave up on their 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!

Stephen had been falsely accused of blasphemy but, responding to these charges, he was very bold. He faced the Sanhedrin - the council of people that God had placed in a position of authority - and likened them to their ancestors, accusing them of resisting God's Holy Spirit. 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 lay down their lives for Jesus. Indeed, many still do just that. Stephen did not mince his words and there are times when you and I need to stand up for Jesus. (Acts 7:51-53)

The court's reaction was, perhaps, not surprising. The members of the Sanhedrin were enraged. Read Acts 7:54-57 and notice two things: firstly, 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 - as he spoke with absolute clarity to the Sanhedrin. As we are bold and courageous in sharing the good news about Jesus, so Jesus stands up and encourages us. The second point is this: they covered their ears. They didn’t want to hear any more. People who don't know Jesus may never want to hear any more. But Jesus will honour us for our faithfulness.

Now begins the transition to another phase in the growth of the church. Paul relates his Jewish credentials in Philippians 3:4-11. He was a pure-blooded Jew from a branch of the original "Benjamin" family; he was circumcised when he was eight days old. He was a member of the sect called "Pharisees" who demanded the strictest obedience to every Jewish law and custom. Initially, this led Paul to persecute the early church, but he turned his back on his previous way of life and threw it all away so that he could put his trust and hope in Christ alone.

As "Saul", he 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 and this was certainly the case with Saul. Subsequently, he became "Paul" and 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 programme. 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 fulfilled its calling: to 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?

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