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Stephen

In the early chapters of Acts two witnesses of our Lord stand out-the apostle Peter and Stephen. The witness of Peter was in the power of the Holy Spirit (Acts 4.8), and was preceded by signs and wonders (see, for example, Acts 5.12-16). Stephen's witness was also in the power of the Spirit and he "wrought great wonders and signs among the people" (Acts 6.8). His testimony led to a great persecution, called elsewhere a "tribulation"

What kind of man was Stephen? His characteristics are described in few words. Nevertheless, a clear picture is given to us of this faithful and fearless witness for the Lord. He is described as:

"of faith and of the Holy Spirit",

"full of the Spirit and of wisdom", and

"full of grace and power".

Stephen stands alongside the mighty men of faith, men who had dealings with God and were used by Him. The spiritual giants mentioned in Hebrews 11, for example, Abraham and the patriarchs, Joseph and Moses were cast in the same mould as Stephen, and these were the men whose exploits for God he extols in his long address in Acts 7. We could also compare Stephen with Barnabas, of whom it is written, "he was a good man, and full of the Holy Spirit and of faith" (Acts

11.24).

A requirement of the seven men chosen by the apostles to supervise the daily distribution to needy widows was that they were to be "full of the Spirit and of wisdom". They were to be men of good report who would have the confidence of all in the assembly at Jerusalem-men of standing and testimony, using the wisdom that had been imparted to them by God. Stephen was among those chosen. The growth of the church in Jerusalem brought trouble between the home-born Jews (Hebrews) and the foreign Jews (Hellenists). The Hellenists' grievance was that their widows were being neglected in the distribution to the needy (Acts 4.35; 6.1). The apostles were primarily involved in spiritual things, in prayer and in the ministry of the Word (Acts 6.4), 50 others had to be chosen to ensure that this distribution was equitably carried out. Here was a situation which called for wise and Spirit-filled men. The murmuring of the Hellenists could so easily have disrupted the people of God. This had happened when the children of Israel murmured in the wilderness (see Numbers 14). Murmuring is still something which can be used of Satan to hinder the progress of an assembly. Wise and Spirit-filled men such as Stephen will always be needed.

Stephen was full of grace and power in his words and in his works. He was faithful and true to his Lord, so much so that his hearers could not endure the words of grace which he spoke. Like the Lord Jesus in the synagogue at Nazareth his words roused the anger of certain Jews. The Jews of the synagogues of the Libertines, Cyrenians, Alexandrians and those of Cilicia and Asia disputed with Stephen but could not withstand his wisdom. Silenced by argument they could only resort to slandering him in an attempt to justify themselves and this ultimately brought Stephen to the bar of the Sanhedrin.

How do we understand Stephen's defence? It occupies an important place in the first twelve chapters of Acts. Through Stephen, God made a moving appeal to the Jewish people. That appeal was rejected by their leaders. If we go back to the words of the Lord Jesus in Acts 1.8 we find that the scope of apostolic witness was first "in Jerusalem", then "in all Judaea and Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth". The martyrdom of Stephen marked the beginning of the outward spread of the gospel from Jerusalem.

Stephen's defence took the form of an attack on the leaders of the Jewish nation. He traced their history from Abraham to Solomon, proving that again and again they had been guilty of resisting God's Spirit and had even gone the length of crucifying their Saviour. Stephen charged this home to their conscience and accused them further of the rejection of the witness of God's Spirit through the apostles. Ignorance could no longer be pleaded because of the evidence of the miracles and the power of the spoken word but still they resisted the appeal from God. They had been filled with jealousy before, as a result of Peter's testimony, now they were cut to the heart and gnashed on Stephen with their teeth When they stoned him they gave vent to their feelings of hatred toward Christ. This is proved by the great persecution which followed.

Stephen is rightly known as the first Christian martyr. In the Authorised Version of Acts 22.20 the words "Stephen, Thy witness" are rendered "Stephen, Thy martyr". A martyr is one who by his death bears witness to his belief. In his death Stephen witnessed for Christ. Like Ezekiel, when the heavens were opened, he saw visions of God. Stephen's final word before he was cast out of the council and the city was "Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing on the right hand of God" (Acts 7.56). What a witness! He also witnessed particularly to one who was standing by and keeping the garments of his murderers, one, Saul of Tarsus, who was destined to continue the work of witnessing to Jews and Gentiles.

Stephen was a man on fire for Christ. He was so filled with the Spirit of God that his countenance shone as that of an angel. He began his defence with the words "The God of glory" and at the end he saw the glory of God. "And they stoned Stephen, calling upon the Lord, and saying, Lord Jesus, receive my spirit. And he kneeled down, and cried with a loud voice, Lord, lay not this sin to their charge" (Acts 7.59,60). Here was a man who was so like the Lord Jesus that his last words were almost an echo of the Saviour's on the cross.

Stephen's name means "crown" and we can be sure that to him is given the crown of life reserved for those who are faithful unto death (Revelation 2.10).