Standing Tall in the Grace of God

Acts 6:8-7:60       Sermon Resources      23 February 2020


We come this week to the story of Stephen.  Last week we saw that he was one of the seven men “of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom” who were appointed by the apostles to take care of the widows in the church.  Now he becomes the first martyr.  Surrounded by wolves he is devoured for his outspoken faith in Christ and dies with his eyes, literally, fixed on his Savior.

Interestingly the word martyr comes from Greek and originally meant “to witness.”  For instance, in Acts 1:8 when Jesus said to his disciples, “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth,” the word he used was martyr.  So many of those first believers were giving witness to Jesus and being murdered as a result, that the very meaning of the word itself changed.

We have many reasons to admire the faith of Stephen.  I want specifically to call your attention to three of those reasons.


#1 Stephen knew that God had given him a CALLING.

Just as our individual names are written in the book of life (c.f. Luke 10:20, Revelation 20:15), so we are also given an individual calling.  Each of us have unique spiritual gifts (c.f. 1 Corinthians 12:7) which enable us to glorify God in that specific calling.

We’ve been exploring this topic of calling over the past two sermons now and it is an important concept to grasp.  That we’ve not only been called out of sin and darkness, but we’ve been called into something wonderful and glorious.  We have a God-ordained niche in the world to fulfill.  And yet there are so many distractions that seek to sidetrack us.  There is so much hardship that has the potential to discourage us.    This is why we need to develop a strong sense of exactly what God has called us into.

We see this in the life of Stephen.  Here is a man who was certainly not pursuing his own agenda.  He was not full of himself, but full of the Spirit.  Luke tells us he was full of grace and power and had an exciting ministry doing great wonders and signs among the people (v.8).  This is a calling anyone would love to have.  But this calling soon led him into trouble.

He found himself surrounded by men who would stop at nothing to silence him.  They first entered into debate with him attempting to dispute[ed] him (v.9) but they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking (v.10).  Having failed at reason, they resort to setting up false witnesses (v.13) to bring lies against him.

Lesser men at this point would have run.  Jesus once warned his disciples about the hired hand who cares for the sheep in the good times, but when he sees danger coming, he flees since he is not the shepherd (c.f. John 10:12).  But Stephen does not flee when the wolves begin to encircle him.


#2 Stephen stood tall in the COURAGE he was given.

Having a clear sense of calling from God tends to produce courage in us.  This is because when we are able to connect our work with the larger work of Jesus’ kingdom, we become convinced of the necessity to press on.  And we find that the Spirit begins to meet us in surprising ways.  He fills up what is lacking in us, so that we can walk by faith and fulfill that calling.  When our backs are against the wall and we choose to walk by faith rather than to run, we find that he meets us.  Stephen discovered that this was true.

Jesus had promised to do this very thing: “And when they bring you before the synagogues and the rulers and the authorities, do not be anxious about how you should defend yourself or what you should say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say.” (c.f. Luke 12:11-12)

Apart from the work of the Spirit in his life, Stephen was an ordinary guy.  He wasn’t one of the apostles who stood on the mountain with Jesus.  There is no record of him being present that first Easter morning.  He was “just” a deacon in the church.  And God had a calling for him.

This sermon that he preaches was probably not the first sermon he ever preached but it was certainly the last sermon.  It was his funeral sermon.  And it’s actually the longest sermon recorded in the book of Acts.  He goes through the history of Israel beginning with Abraham and the punchline of the sermon comes at the end: You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit. As your fathers did, so do you (v.51).


#3 Stephen surrendered CONTROL. 

If we could write an equation, it would not be calling + courage = control.  We often think this though.  If I could just figure out my calling and courageously pursue that calling, then I will be in control of the outcome.  No, if we boiled down this passage to an equation it would be this:  calling + courage = surrender.   Stephen was doing all the “right” things and still at the end of the day he had to surrender.   And what is it that enabled this surrender?  He had a clear view Jesus.

Stephen says, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God (v.56).”  I believe that Stephen actually entered into the presence of Jesus in these moments before his death.  This is why when they looked at him earlier, they saw that his face was like the face of an angel (c.f. Acts 6:15).  This was not just because he was innocent but because his face was radiating the glory of God.  Just as Moses’ face became radiant after being in the presence of God (c.f. Exodus 34:35), so Stephen’s was transfigured.  The same thing happened to the face of Jesus, Moses, and Elijah during the transfiguration (c.f. Luke 9:29-30) and the same thing will happen to us as well (c.f. 1 John 3:2) when we too come into the presence of Jesus.

I love that Jesus is seen standing at the right hand of God the Father.  Typically, Jesus is said to be seated at the throne of God because his work is complete.  But here Jesus stands.  He stands to give witness to the death of Stephen and to welcome him home.  Stephen sees Jesus as we need to see Jesus, that is in his state of exaltation.  Jesus has conquered sin and death and darkness and the devil himself.  He has been risen from the dead and is now upon his throne in heaven.  He is in control of all things.  Praise Him for this!

Stephen surrenders control to his Savior even as he is being pummeled with stones.  He cries out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit (v.59).” And just as Jesus had done as he was being tormented on the cross, Stephen asked that his murderers be forgiven, Lord, do not hold this sin against them (v.60).  These are the last recorded words of Stephen.  To ask God to forgive the very ones who murdered him.

This is a man who was faithful in pursuing the calling God had given him.  A man who was courageous to the end.  A man who surrendered his life and died in the very presence of Jesus.


Discussion Questions

  1. Looking at the passage from this week and last week describe Stephen’s calling. How do you think he viewed his calling?
  2. Why is it important to develop a sense of calling? How do you do that?  If you have children, how do you help them to do that?
  3. Briefly share a calling you believe you have.
  4. How does Stephen demonstrate courage in this passage? Why do you think he does not run away?
  5. Where in your life do you need to ask God to give you courage?
  6. In what ways are you tempted to believe that calling + courage = control? Why do you think we tend to have such a strong desire to be in control?
  7. How does Stephen demonstrate surrender in this passage?
  8. Explain Stephen’s vision of Jesus. What do you think we are supposed to learn from this?