Oct. 7, 2012
Background Scripture: Acts 6:8-7:53
Devotional Reading: Proverbs 8:1-11
St. Stephen as one of the most fascinating and unique heroes of the Bible. Yet, he is virtually unknown to many Christians and not much celebrated throughout Christendom.
Unlike Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Thomas, Peter and Paul, there seem to be few churches named for him. He is mentioned only in eight Bible locations, all of them in the Book of Acts (6:05,06; 7:02,59; 8:02;11:19; and 16:17). Had he lived beyond the young age of his martyrdom, he would probably be recognized as one of the greatest of the apostles.
For one thing, Stephen appears at a crucial historical moment in the life of the faith. The church was largely a community of followers of Christ headquartered in Jerusalem, and was composed of Jews who adopted the Good News as the fulfillment of Judaism. Some of these Jews spoke Hebrew, while others spoke Greek and some spoke both languages.
This congregation was essentially a Jewish sect composed of those who chose to follow Jesus as the fulfillment of the hope of Israel. Stephen came to the Jerusalem church as a Greek-speaking Jew from abroad. But, in a short while, his martyrdom would set in motion a time of persecution that pushed the gospel from Jerusalem into Asia Minor and beyond.
A call for help
It was also during Stephen’s brief sojourn in the Jerusalem church that saw the beginning of a structured community. The Twelve Apostles – one for each of the twelve tribes of Israel – were the spiritual leaders of this congregation. (Matthias was chosen by the drawing of lots to replace Judas the traitor.)
They soon found they were not having sufficient time for their spiritual vocation. Apparently there was some complaint that the Jewish Christians were shown preference over the Hellenistic (or Greek) Jews.
As “seven” was regarded as the “perfect” and “complete” number, they chose seven men to minister to the practical needs of the people and the Apostles could devote themselves to the message of Christ. Stephen is mentioned for the first time in Acts 6:5: “… and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith of the Holy Spirit.”
Some see this incident as marking the beginning of clerical and lay leaders in the Church. But, no sooner had this division been set forth, than it became less than clear-cut. When Luke writes that Stephen “full of grace and power, did great wonders and signs among along the people,” he’s not speaking of Stephen’s waiting on tables in the communal dining place.
In other words, chosen for a largely secular role in the life of the congregation, Stephen quickly demonstrated his gifts in the spiritual realm. Here, then, is something that is just as important today as it was in his day: No matter what is your calling by Christ, you can perform it as an opportunity to witness to the grace and power of Christ.
Brother Lawrence, a 17th century lay brother in a Carmelite monastery in Paris, wrote his classic The Practice of the Presence of God based mostly upon his experiences among the pots and pans of the monastery kitchen.
Theodore P. Ferris rightly compares Stephen to Christ: “Jesus began as a teacher in the local synagogue. He ended as Savior of the world. Stephen began as a server of tables. He ended as the first Christian martyr and the type of all who were to follow.
“Paul began as a man struck blind on the Damascus road. He ended as the man who turned the world upside down. Wesley began as a single convert who saw the light of Christ. He ended as the man who took the world for his parish.”
No matter where you are and what is your situation, you can always witness for Christ. Don’t wait for the biggest job in your church. Even in a small one, with Christ’s help, make it into something “special.”
Stephen’s experience also bears out this finding: Do something for God and someone is sure to be bent out of shape.
It started as a discussion in the synagogue of the “Cyrenians, Alexandrians and others of those from Cilicia and Asia, stood up and argued with Stephen” (Acts 6;9). What did they argue about? The Palestinian Jews who followed Jesus spoke Aramaic and remained close to the Jewish life. They thought of the gospel as “our thing.”
But now there were Greek-speaking Jews or people of Jewish heritage arguing with Stephen. And he was proclaiming the patriarchs of Judaism were those who heard God’s command to take the faith beyond the precincts of the temple and the walls of Jerusalem.
That is almost guaranteed to make someone upset. The gospel was no longer just for the Jews, but for all who would hear it and respond to it. It cannot be confined to a bottle: sooner or later, the Spirit will blow the cork out of the bottle.
Some of the Hebrew Christians could not imagine the gospel reaching out beyond the Holy Land. Nor could they envision the beloved community existing away from the Temple. But, as Dr. Ferris puts it: “God could conceivably get along without either.” That is why God presents us constantly with new horizons and the challenge Stephen gave the infant church.
The views and opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of Farm World. Readers with questions or comments for Rev. Althouse may write to him in care of this publication.